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One of the most intimidating-looking summer vegetables is the bitter melon. Dark green and very knobbly on the surface, it looks like a vegetal relative of Godzilla.

Even more intimidating is its pronounced bitter flavor, which is definitely an acquired taste. Nevertheless, it’s well worth adding to your diet. Bitter melon is a great source of vitamin C, and the compounds that give the fruit its bitter taste, called momordicines, are purported to have several beneficial properties.

Originally from the tropical regions of Asia, the bitter melon was probably introduced to the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa) from China in the late 16th century, and from there it made its way to mainland Japan.

In Japanese it’s called either nigauri or tsurureishi (literally “vining lychee”) since it resembles reishi (lychee) with its knobbly exterior. However, since it is so closely associated with Okinawan cuisine, nowadays it’s usually called gōya or gōyā, the name for it in the Okinawan language.

The green fruit we usually find in stores is actually unripe — the ripe fruit is yellow, and not bitter at all. But it’s hard to get ripe bitter melon outside of Okinawa or parts of Kyushu. In addition, the bitterness is what is said to have all those beneficial qualities, such as lowering blood pressure or combatting natsubate (summer fatigue).

The bitterness of the fruit really grows on you after a while, and even becomes addictive. But it’s best to try to lessen the impact of that bitterness as much as possible, at least at the start. Popular methods are to soak it in cold water, blanch it in hot water, stir-fry or deep-fry it. But one of the most effective ways to combat the bitterness is to just add strong salt, sugar or sour flavors that balance it out, as well as combining it with umami-rich ingredients.

Here are two recipes where the bitter melon is combined with umami, salt and sweet flavors. The first is a quick aemono (mixed side dish). The second is the quintessential chanpurū (Okinawan stir-fried dish) with sōmen noodles. I’ve used bacon and sausages instead of the usual Spam that’s popular in Okinawa.

Mellow it out: One way to reduce the bitterness is to add strong salt, sugar or sour flavors that balance it out, such as in this aemono salad and chanpurū stir-fry. | MAKIKO ITOH
Mellow it out: One way to reduce the bitterness is to add strong salt, sugar or sour flavors that balance it out, such as in this aemono salad and chanpurū stir-fry. | MAKIKO ITOH

Recipe: How to make bitter melon and tuna aemono

Serves 2 to 4 as a side dish

Prep: 10 mins.

1 medium bitter melon

¼ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 small can (80 grams) tuna packed in oil, drained

1 tablespoon sakura ebi (tiny dried shrimp)

1 tablespoon or 1 small packet fine katsuobushi (skipjack tuna flakes)

1 teaspoon white sesame seeds

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon ponzu sauce

1. Cut the bitter melon in half, scoop out and discard the seeds. Slice into 1- to 2-millimeter thick slices. Put the slices in a small bowl, add the salt and sugar, and rub them into the flesh.

2. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the bitter melon and blanch for 10 seconds. Drain.

3. Put the sakura ebi in a small frying pan without oil. Toast the shrimp for one minute.

4. Combine the drained bitter melon with the katsuobushi, sesame seeds, soy sauce and ponzu and mix well.

Recipe: How to make sōmen chanpurū with bitter melon

Serves 2 to 3

Prep: 10 mins., cook: 10 mins.

1 medium bitter melon

½ medium carrot

3 green onions

200 grams (2 bundles) dried sōmen noodles

2 slices bacon

4 small or 2 medium wiener sausages

1 egg

Salt and pepper

1½ tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons sesame oil

Vegetable oil for cooking

1. Cut the bitter melon in half, scoop out and discard the seeds. Slice into 5-millimeter thick slices. (If you want to get rid of even more bitterness, pre-treat them with salt and sugar as in the aemono recipe above.)

2. Peel the carrot and cut into thin matchsticks. Cut the green onion into 2-centimeter long pieces. Cut the bacon into 1-centimeter wide pieces and the sausages into 3-millimeter thick diagonal pieces.

3. Heat up a large frying pan over medium heat with ½ tablespoon oil. Beat the egg with a pinch of salt and pepper. Add the egg to the frying pan to scramble it. Take the egg out of the pan.

4. Add the bacon to the pan and fry it until it starts to turn brown and renders its fat. Add ½ tablespoon oil. Add the sausages, bitter melon and carrot, and stir-fry until the carrot is wilted, about three minutes. Add the soy sauce and the green onions and stir a few times.

5. In the meantime, bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the sōmen noodles and cook for 45 seconds. Drain immediately.

6. Add the drained noodles to the frying pan with the sesame oil. Toss the noodles well with the vegetables and meats, and add the scrambled egg. Serve hot.

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