We get just about every kind of produce in Southern California (even tropical, thanks to all those new hothouses in Santa Barbara County), but some make only a fleeting appearance.
Bitter melon is one such vegetable with a very quick season. This squash crops up in July and August: it especially likes humid weather, but our new extreme dry heat seems to make it happy, too.
The Chinese variety is more common in the United States. It looks a bit like a pale cucumber that's been run ragged. The Indian version, which tastes essentially the same, is generally smaller but very cool. It has a bumpy skin reminiscent of a crocodile. It would almost be the perfect vehicle for getting kids to eat their vegetables … if only it weren't so darn bitter.
It turns out bitter melon has a very accurate name. There are methods for reducing the bitterness — you want to remove the seeds, and most cooks soak the melon in salted water before cooking, to draw out some of the bitterness. But the flavor might still be a little startling.
That's why this vegetable is used strategically. In India, bitter melon often is paired with nuts or coconut, or it appears alongside fried food. In China, it's added to pork dishes. Bitter melon's whole role in traditional cooking is to offset the richness of the main ingredient. That's why it's so beloved by those who love bright, strident flavors.
The first time you cook one, though, you might want to pick one of the bigger, paler gourds. It'll have a milder flavor.