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Bitter melon is a tropical member of the cucurbit family, grown in Asia as a source of food. The intensely bitter flavor of bitter melon is a popular addition to the cuisine of many Asian nations, ranging from India to the Philippines, although it has not caught on in the West. Like many somewhat obscure Asian vegetables, bitter melon is readily available at Asian markets, in season, and it can also sometimes be found in preserved form. It is also possible to grow bitter melon in a home garden, if you live in a tropical area or you have a greenhouse.
The scientific name for bitter melon is Momordica charantia, and the plant has a number of common names including balsam pear, bitter gourd, and ku gua. Superficially, the annual plant resembles a cucumber vine, with a sprawling growth habit, curly tendrils, and bright yellow flowers. The bitter melons themselves are roughly oblong, bright green, and knobbly. When cut open, a bitter melon is largely hollow, with a thin layer of bitter melon flesh surrounding seeds which turn bright red when the bitter melon is ripe.
Most people eat bitter melon green, before it has fully matured. The green bitter melon is used fresh in things like stir fry, bitter melon soup, tea, and tinctures. The vegetable may be mixed in with others to lend a note of bitterness, or it may be eaten alone, since the bitter flavor is highly valued in many Asian culinary traditions. The young shoots and leaves of the vine are also edible, although they have been known to cause upset stomachs.
In addition to being used as a food source, bitter melon is also used in many medicinal traditions in Asia. Some people believe that the plant may be a useful antimalarial, while others use it to soothe digestive problems. Bitter melon may also turn out to be a vegetarian source of insulin for diabetics, and a diet of the fruit is used to assist in controlling blood sugar in some Asian nations. Extracts and tinctures of the vegetable are available for medicinal use.
Gardeners in tropical and subtropical areas can grow bitter melon, either as an ornamental or as a food source. The plant is relatively easy to grow, and the rapidly climbing growth habit can bring a rich wall of green to the garden in the summer months. The vegetables will mature on the vine in mid-summer, and they can be picked for consumption or pickling, or left on the vine to develop seeds for the next year.