I’ve got a special place in my heart for under-appreciated fruits and vegetables. The weirder they look, the more intrigued I am to know what they taste like, how to prepare them, and what nutritional benefit they provide. One of my latest discoveries since coming to Hawaii is the bitter melon—an appropriately named fruit produced from a climbing vine that’s in the same plant family as squashes, gourds, and melons. It’s popular in Asian, African and Indian cultures, but relatively unknown here.
I first saw them at a farmers market, but I didn’t learn what they were until I was in a grocery store that carried them. Upon seeing the word bitter in the name, I had to know what it tasted like. I brought one home, did some internet searching and found most people use it in a stir-fry… I followed their advice and fried it up. I really liked the texture—which was similar to a cooked pepper—and the unique, tart flavor it brought to the finished dish.
A few weeks later I was picking out starter plants for my garden, and somehow a bitter melon plant made the cut. I didn’t know a thing about growing it, but I thought it would do well for me given its abundance at markets—which it has. After I planted it, I soon had to build a trellis for the fast growing vine, as well as the purple beans I planted next to it. Maybe two weeks later, I had to build an even bigger trellis for them both (which still wasn’t big enough but it’s as far as I can reach).
Once it started to produce fruit, I began doing some research on the best time to harvest them. I came across the National Bitter Melon Council’s website. Not only did I find out when to harvest them, but I also found some very creative uses for it beyond stir-fry (sangria, risottos, ice cream!) and information on its many healing properties and nutritional value. Most notably, bitter melon is regarded as a fruit that can help the body control its production of insulin and is frequently prescribed as an herbal remedy to help treat diabetes and other chronic illnesses.
Curious to see if grilling was an option, I searched for recipes that called for grilling and came across an awesome one on a Filipino food blog, Burnt Lumpia. With the first bitter melon harvested from my garden, along with a mango and tomato, I made his version, which was very good. One of the best things about Marvin’s recipe was how easy and low-maintenance it was—almost no dishes. However, I wanted to play around with the ingredients as I felt like I had to work to get a bite with all three ingredients on my fork. I wondered if I could find other “sweet” ingredients that would complement the bitter melon and stay together easier.
I was eyeing a kabocha squash (my favorite kind of squash) and a watermelon I had bought and realized their sweetness and textures would be perfect. I found a recipe for grilled kabocha squash that was amazing, and got to work. The preparation of the squash took a little time, and created a bit of a mess—anything with a food processor usually does—so I recommend making this ahead of time and reheating when the bitter melon comes off the grill.
After washing your squash, cut it in half and scoop out the seeds.
Then cut it into “C” shapes that are equal in width—ideally about one inch—and put into a gallon Ziploc bag.
- Prepare a puree to add as a marinade. I used my mini-food processor, but you could just use a knife. Combine 2 cloves of garlic (finely chopped if using a knife, or pressed), 2 Tbsp of water, 5 Tbsp of an oil that can handle high heat (I used Sunflower), and ½ a small onion.
- Once this is mixed, add herbs and spices of your choice (I used 1 Tbsp of thyme, 1 Tbsp of garlic chives, 2 Tbsp of rosemary, a few shakes of salt and fresh cracked pepper).
- Add the marinade to the Ziploc bag, and mix contents to ensure even coating, then let sit for 30-60 minutes.
Once it’s ready, fire up the grill to a medium heat and arrange your “C” slices on the grill—preferably not directly over the heat, use the side burners, if possible. I closed the top and left it for about 8 minutes and thought that was perfect. I turned over the squash and found at this point, they only needed a couple more minutes. You’ll know they’re done when they give to the tongs. Remove from the heat, and scrape down the grill.
Once they’re cool to the touch, cut away the skin on each of the slices and put into a food processor. Start to add small amounts of your good olive oil to the bunch and scrap down the sides every so often. Once it’s a smooth puree, remove and set aside.
To prepare the bitter melon, wash, and then slice in half. You’ll see the seeds—which should have a reddish tint to them—in a soft white filling. Scrape it all out and spread canola oil on the inside and outside of your two halves. Set on a plate.
I like this dish with grilled watermelon, as fresh watermelon will add too much water to your final dish. Grilling it makes it a little ”meatier,” which is the texture that I wanted. Prepare your watermelon by cutting into thick long slices, and coat with canola oil. Set on the plate with the bitter melon. With your rejected watermelon pieces, I highly recommend making Martha’s Watermelon Mojitos to have in your other hand while you grill.
Take the plate outside along with a large piece of foil, and a pourable measuring cup with 1 Tbsp of canola oil, 1 tsp of soy sauce, and a touch of toasted sesame oil in it. Grill the bitter melon and watermelon indirectly over the flames until you see char marks on the sides of the food touching the grill (which should be 8 minutes or so). Turn over for a few minutes, then remove the bitter melon. Put the bitter melon in the foil, and pour the oil mixture into the middle of the halves. Wrap up and put back on the grill for another five minutes or so.
When done, remove from the heat and allow the melon to cool slightly. Heat up your squash puree if need be. When you’re ready to serve, place the bitter melon on the plate, fill in with the puree, and put smaller pieces of the watermelon on top. Lightly sprinkle with sea salt and serve.
While I really love this dish, it is a bit of a risk to serve to someone unless you know his or her thoughts on bitter melon. You may not even have access to bitter melon, but I at least wanted you to know what it was in case it was new to you, as it was me. However, the main reason why I wrote about it was because I wanted to write about my experience grilling fruit and the end result. I’m now looking at most fresh things and wondering what it tastes like grilled. As long as it’s not an expensive or rare ingredient, I say play with your food–maybe you’ll find a new way to prepare it that you prefer to your standard way.