Please note that I may earn a small commission from purchases made through product links in this article at no extra cost to you. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Last updated: August 20, 2023
A practical step-by-step guide on how to prepare, cook and eat bitter melon, plus handy recipe tips for this unique fruit.
Bitter melon is a unique-looking fruit (some consider it a veggie) with an even more unique taste. To use it in your cooking, you need to know how to deal with the spikey, lumpy peel and how to tame the bitter flavor.
In this guide, I’ll show you how to eat a bitter melon the right way. I’ll start with step-by-step instructions for cutting and preparing this funny-looking cucumber and give you our best tips for cooking it to perfection.
I’ve also included a bunch of frequently asked questions about eating bitter melon to help unravel the mystery of this strange fruit.
How to Eat a Bitter Melon
Bitter melon, also known as bitter cucumber, bitter gourd, and balsam pear, is a close relative of the cucumber. It’s native to India and has been cultivated in China, Southeast Asia, and Northern Africa for thousands of years.
It looks similar to a cucumber but with a unique lumpy, wrinkly peel. Young fruits are bright green and mature to darker green as they grow.
Over-ripe bitter melons eventually turn bright yellow-orange and split open to reveal red seeds.
As the name suggests, this vegetable is incredibly bitter. Young fruits are less bitter than mature ones, but all need extra preparation to mellow their flavor.
How to Prepare Bitter Melon
Before you can start preparing your bitter melon, you first need to select the best one.
Typically, you’ll want a younger melon, as these tend to be the least bitter. Look for those with light green skin and avoid ones that are dark green or beginning to turn yellow.
To avoid getting a young bitter melon that isn’t mature enough, opt for those with thick, fat sections between the wrinkles. Those with wrinkles that are close together and look shriveled are not quite ripe enough to use.
NOTE: This difference is more apparent in smooth Chinese bitter gourd varieties than in the rougher Indian bitter gourd varieties.
How to prepare a bitter melon depends largely on how you are going to use it, but the steps will be similar in all cases.
Preparing bitter melon:
- Start by thoroughly washing the veggie, paying special attention to the wrinkles and crevices in the skin.
- Optional: Use a paring knife to remove a thin layer of the outer skin. This can be helpful for especially rough-skinned Indian bitter melons but is not necessary.
- Slice the bitter melon in half lengthwise.
- Use a spoon to remove the seeds and fibrous insides from the center of the fruit. These are edible and can be left in place if preferred, but they add a heaping of bitter flavor to the end result. For this reason, most recipes call for them to be removed.
- Cut the ends off each piece.
- Set the pieces open side down and cut widthwise into ¼ to ½ inch slices.
Alternatively, you can take your whole bitter melon, cut off each end, then slice it into 1-inch thick rounds.
Pop the seeds out of each round to get a hollow circle. This is how you want to prepare your melon for most stuffed bitter gourd recipes.
How to Cook Bitter Melon
While bitter cucumber can be eaten raw, it is most often cooked. Heating the fruit reduces the acerbic flavor and makes it easier to enjoy.
Bitter melon can be cooked in a variety of ways, but the three most common are stir-fried, steamed, and boiled.
Stir-frying is a great way to infuse bitter melon with spices and strong flavors to help mellow its natural bitterness. Using a hot wok will help deliver crispy bitter melon pieces with a nice crunch.
Stir-frying bitter melon:
- Start by blanching the bitter melon slices to reduce their bitterness. Place them in a pot of salted boiling water for 2 ½ minutes.
- Immediately remove them from the water and place them in an ice bath.
- Dry the slices and add them to a hot, oiled wok with other vegetables and spices. Garlic, onion, chili powder, and red chili flakes complement bitter melon nicely.
- Fry for about 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add any sauce as desired and continue frying until browned on each side, about 2 more minutes. Soy sauce and balsamic vinegar are common options, or you can mix in your favorite pad thai, teriyaki, or other sauce.
- Serve warm over rice, noodles, or as a side.
Steaming bitter melon is a simple way to prepare it and the preferred cooking method when stuffing rings of bitter melon.
Steaming bitter melon:
- Start by preparing your bitter melon rings. For stuffed recipes, you’ll want to place the stuffing in the rings now.
- Arrange the rings (stuffed or empty) on a steaming dish.
- Place the steaming dish over gently boiling water and cover.
- Cook unstuffed rings for about 15 minutes or until the rings are tender. For stuffed varieties, refer to the recipe. These will usually take closer to 30 minutes to cook, especially when using meat-based stuffing.
- Carefully remove each ring from the dish with tongs and serve hot with a dipping sauce.
Boiling bitter melon is a simple way to prepare it for a variety of dishes. Boiled bitter melon is often included in soups, used as a topper for salads, or added to egg rolls or similar recipes.
Boiling bitter melon:
- Start by filling a pot halfway with water and bringing it to a boil.
- Add the bitter melon slices and turn the heat down to medium.
- Cover and cook for about 13 minutes.
- Remove the slices once tender and set them on a clean towel to dry, then add to recipes as needed.
If you’d like to consume bitter melon purely for its nutritional benefits, check out my guide to bitter melon supplements for more information on this topic.
Frequently Asked Questions
Let’s go through some common questions regarding eating, cooking, and storing bitter melon.
Are bitter melon seeds edible?
In many cultures where bitter melon is traditionally used in cooking, the seeds are occasionally consumed. However, they have a very bitter flavor and are often discarded while the less bitter flesh is used.
Eating bitter melon seeds may not be a good idea for everyone, as reports suggest some people may experience side effects such as headaches and abdominal issues.
While these side effects are less likely with immature white seeds, it may be best to skip them altogether, even more so because they taste so bitter.
Can you eat bitter melon raw?
Bitter melon can be eaten raw and has no known side effects when consumed in normal quantities. It is, however, incredibly bitter when not cooked. Most recipes recommend blanching bitter melon before using it as a raw additive.
You can blanch bitter melon two ways. The easiest is to place the prepared slices in boiling water for about 90 seconds, then transfer them to an ice bath.
Alternatively, you can salt the slices and let them sit in a colander for about 30 minutes. When time is up, press the slices and dry them to remove lingering bitterness.
How to store fresh bitter melon?
Bitter melons do not have a long shelf life once picked. When you get yours home, it must be stored in the refrigerator crisper drawer. To keep it fresher longer, wrap it in a paper towel and place it inside a zip lock bag.
Wait to wash the bitter melon until you are ready to use it.