Bitter Melon Sauté ♥

A quick sauté of bitter melon & onionSo if we need any more signs of the globalization of our planet, check out the Des Moines Farmers Market smack dab in the middle of the corn and bean fields of central Iowa.

What a fabulous farmers market - the best I've seen, bar none. And mine is no solo act singing the market's praises. At least one of the chefs for the Niman Ranch annual hog producers appreciation dinner weekend before last agrees. "The farmers market is spectacular," he told me just as I was heading there, "way better than anything in Chicago."

The market is huge, as much a street festival with booth after booth of locally raised produce, meat, honey and fresh flowers along with artisan cheese and bread -- plus food stalls (have you had a pupusa, yet? delicious! or what about homemade biscuits and sausage gravy? swoon!) and market-appropriate crafts like bird houses made from gourds and t-shirts that read, "I'm an Iowa Girl". We were especially lucky to get the grand tour from market master Kelly Foss but my goodness - what a spread.

For vegetables, I expected typical farmers market fare for this time of year - corn, peppers, tomatoes, onions, winter squash and all the other fresh Midwestern produce that bridges late summer and early fall - but by serendipity, sat in the shade (with a glass of rosemary-infused lemonade that still has me wishing for more) near a booth selling fresh long beans, lemon grass and bitter melon, all staples of Asian cooking.

And by further serendipity, another shopper told me how to cook the bitter melon! Thank you, Carol Williams! (This is Iowa, folks, it's a friendly place!)

Bitter melon halves, scoop out the centersACQUIRED TASTE Bitter melon is an acquired taste. Raw, it is pucker-up bitter and spit-it-out sour. To make it palatable, at least to my taste, you need to remove much of the bitterness -- scrape off the tips of the prickles, leach out some of the liquid, cook with something else (here, onion) and cook til WELL done. After that, it was good -- but I'm not really sure, honestly, it was still bitter melon.

MAKE IT A MEAL Bitter melon seem to be often paired with eggs, to further soften the bitterness so for this I recommend Alex's French Eggs.

MORE VEGETABLE RECIPES See the Recipe Box for nearly 30 months worth of new-to-me vegetables.

TWO YEARS AGO My very first time to unveil that year's obsession, slow-roasted tomatoes.

A YEAR AGO Potato Okra Curry, "Twenty minutes. One skillet. Truly tasty."


Hands-on time: 15 minutes
Time to table: 90 minutes
Serves 4

1 pound bitter melon
kosher salt

Bacon grease or other oil
Chopped onion

While the melons are still whole, use a knife to scrape off the points of the skin. Slice in half, lengthwise, then scoop out center material and seeds, leaving just the outside flesh. Chop into small pieces. Toss with plenty of turmeric and salt. Let rest for an hour or more. Rinse well.

In a large skillet, heat the bacon grease on MEDIUM till shimmery. Add the bitter melon and cook til beginning to soften. Add the onion and cook til the onions are done and the bitter melon no longer bitter.

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Alanna Kellogg
Alanna Kellogg

A Veggie Venture is home of "veggie evangelist" Alanna Kellogg and the famous asparagus-to-zucchini Alphabet of Vegetables.


  1. A block from where I lived in Boston, there was a large community garden where most of the gardeners were Chinese. Many of the garden plots would have cages built up, often out of scrap wood and wire, and they would grow bitter melon suspended from the cages. When you walked inside, it was like a strange cave, with bitter melon fruits suspended in mid-air! The Chinese women would always tell me I wouldn't like bitter melon, though they did tell me how to make soup with it. And they were right -- I never acquired the taste.

  2. What a coincidence! There is a vendor at our Farmer's Market who sells bitter melons - I've noticed them for a few years now. I know that my Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook has a few recipes for bitter melon, and I keep meaning to check the recipes and then buy some. Just last week I told the woman behind the table that I would check my cookbook and perhaps purchase this week. What a timely reminder to check my cookbook tonight!

  3. I love your recipes. Freddie and the rest of us never really fell in love with the bitter melon - or gourd as we know it.
    But a friend of mine is cooking it for us on Friday night so we will try it all over again!

  4. I've never tried that. Our farmer's market is Thursday, I hope I make it there!

  5. Bitter melon is VERY popular in most Indian cuisines. Personally, I can take it or leave it :) Many of the popular Indian recipes fry the heck out of it...what wouldn't taste good with that sort of treatment?
    If you do end up enjoying and eating bitter melon, good for you, because it has been shown to have many healthful properties (eg. has some compound in it that seems to stabilize blood glucose...good for folks with diabetes).

  6. I love reading about other farmers' markets--thanks! This sounds like an amazing one.

  7. The Iowa State Fair is still one of my top must-see destinations (and I'm not even sure where in Iowa it takes place); it makes sense you'd find a great farmer's market in Des Moines.

    What a great sight that must have been!

  8. I grew up eating bitter melon that my dad grew in our backyard. One way to help leach out the bitterness is to heavily salt the sliced bitter melon and then squeeze the juice out while rinsing it under running water. A few rounds of this should make it more palatable.

  9. Bittermelon is really an acquired taste in the sense that for most asian children, they were forced to eat it as kids. Somehow over the years though, many come to discover that it's actually tasty. My mother said that I would not like it until I was 30, but I had to periodically try it so I would like it at some point.

    It tastes much better stir fried with some meat. The bittermelon brings out the flavor of the other ingredients.


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