Known locally as ampalaya in the Philippines, bitter melon is celebrated for its distinctively bold flavor. Let's find out more about this unique vegetable that holds a special place in Filipino cuisine.
What is Ampalaya?
Ampalaya, also known as bitter melon or bitter gourd, is a fruit (used as a vegetable) with a distinctively bitter taste. Scientifically named as Momordica charantia, it belongs to the same Cucurbitaceae plant family as cucumber, melon, and squash.
Its appearance sets it apart from others; cylindrical in shape with one pointed end and a tapered tail. The skin is bumpy and wrinkled, with prominent ridges running the length of the fruit. Depending on its maturity, the color can range from pale to dark green.
The Chinese bitter melon variety looks like a pale cucumber—lighter green, smooth with plenty of grooves on the outside. Karela (an Indian variety) is smaller and darker with rough, spiked skin.
What does bitter melon taste like?
Bitter melon is accurately named as it is intensely bitter and not sweet at all. Some people find it unpalatable, but others enjoy it as a unique culinary experience.
Unlike most melons, it becomes more bitter as it ripens. Its texture is firm and crunchy. Although it takes an acquired palate to appreciate bitter melon, there are many delicious ways to cook it or even enjoy it raw.
Is bitter melon healthy?
According to Healthline, there are many health benefits associated with it. It is low in calories but high in fiber. It is a good source of nutrients (Vitamins C & A, potassium, and folate) and may have cancer-fighting properties.
One of its most significant benefits is its potential to lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes and decrease cholesterol levels. It also helps regulate blood sugar and has been studied for its potential as a weight loss aid; however, more research is needed to confirm these findings.
The National Library of Medicine notes that it also contains various antioxidants, including phenols and flavonoids, which help protect the body from oxidative stress and may lower the risk of chronic diseases.
Despite its potential health benefits, bitter melon is not without its drawbacks. Its bitter taste can be a challenge for some people to overcome, and its safety and efficacy have not been fully established.
According to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, bitter melon has reported side effects and should not be consumed alongside certain medications or with specific medical conditions. It's always best to consult with a healthcare professional before adding bitter melon to your diet
How to buy
In the US, bitter gourd is available all year round in Asian supermarkets. Choose the firmest melons that are small to medium in size. Look for a consistent green color throughout, as this is a sign of freshness.
The yellow-green variety tends to have a milder flavor; the greener it is, the more bitter it will be. Examine the surface for any blemishes, bruises, or soft spots as they may be damaged or rotten inside.
How to store
Do not wash until ready to use. The best way to store it depends on how soon you plan to use it. If you are using it within 3 days, loosely store it in a bag in the driest part of your fridge (usually the front) or in the vegetable drawer.
Wrapping individually with plastic wrap prolongs its shelf life in the fridge for longer than a week. This technique effectively maintains its freshness as it prevents moisture loss; make sure they are firm with no mushy spots before wrapping.
Bitter melon does not freeze well because of its high water content. Keeping it at room temperature will cause it to spoil quickly and become soft, slimy, and moldy.
How to prepare
Step 1: Slice the bitter melon in half lengthwise. Using a spoon, scoop out the seeds and the white pith that is more bitter than the fruit itself. Trim the ends, if necessary.
Step 2: Slice them depending on how you are going to cook them.
Step 3: If you wish to reduce the bitterness, liberally add salt and gently massage it into the slices. Let them sit for about 20 minutes.
Step 4: Rinse them thoroughly under running water while gently squeezing them. Drain and cook as usual or serve them raw.
How to reduce bitterness
While bitterness or acerbity can not be removed entirely from bitter melon, there are ways to make them less bitter:
- Soak in salt: Remove as much of the white pith along with the seeds. After slicing them, sprinkle a generous amount of salt and massage it into the flesh. Let it sit for about 20 minutes to draw out the bitterness. Rinse well while gently squeezing them without breaking the slices.
- Blanch in boiling water: Blanch it in boiling water for about 2 minutes before cooking. Drain the water and use the bitter melon in your recipe as usual.
- Use the right ingredients to mask the bitterness: Incorporate strong flavors to complement it, making it less pronounced and more enjoyable. Some options include garlic, onions, ginger, soy sauce, or oyster sauce.
- Choose less mature bitter melon: The younger and less mature it is, the less bitter it tends to be. Look for small, lighter-colored ones for a milder taste.
Keep in mind that while these methods can reduce the bitterness of bitter melon, they may also alter its nutritional value.
Filipino recipes with ampalaya
Cooking with bitter melon requires balancing its bitter taste rather than hiding it. The fruit is used in a variety of ways in Filipino cuisine:
- Ampalaya Salad: A raw bitter melon salad with red onion, tomatoes, and a vinegar-based dressing.
- Ampalaya Achara: A quick pickle made with thinly sliced bitter melon soaked in vinegar, salt, and sugar.
- Pinakbet: A hearty stew made with a variety of local vegetables (squash, okra, eggplant, yardlong beans, and bitter melon) with sautéed shrimp paste and proteins like shrimp or pork.
- Ampalaya con Carne: Stir-fried bitter melon with beef, aromatics, and a sauce made with oyster sauce or fermented black beans.
- Ginisang Ampalaya: Sautéed bitter melon with onions, garlic, and tomatoes cooked with scrambled eggs and sometimes ground pork or shrimp.
- Rellenong Ampalaya: Rounds of ampalaya are hollowed out and stuffed with ground meat and aromatics. It is then baked or pan-fried, then simmered in a savory sauce.
- Sinigang: A sour and savory soup made with pork, shrimp, or fish and a souring agent like tamarind.
Other ingredient guides you may like
Did you like this post? I would love to know! Your feedback helps me make better recipes. Please rate, review, or comment below. Questions about this post are welcome, too!