It wasn't that long ago that the only place you could get good, freshly harvested bitter melon was as the local Asian grocer, or someone's backyard. Bitter melon, a lumpy-skinned cucurbit related to cucumbers and pumpkins, is a Southeast Asian summer crop with a somewhat unfortunate English name that prevents the uninitiated from giving it a try. However, this is L.A., and chances are pretty good that you've had it at some point, even if unintentionally. Today, there are many farm vendors at both big (Hollywood) and small (Eagle Rock) markets who have a few different varieties available, Yasutomi Farms being one of them.
The versions we usually see in markets are the young, pre-ripe melons. The flesh is denser, with fewer seeds (naturally), and is, well, edible. A fully mature bitter melon is actually mostly hollow, with very little flesh and pink or red seeds, and no culinary redeeming qualities whatsoever. But short of cutting them open, there's no real way to tell if the melons are young except by their size. A general rule of thumb is the smaller the better.
Chinese varieties tend to be the longest and largest, with an even lime green color and smooth, elongated lobes stretching the length of the fruit. Vietnamese varieties veer toward the sharp and pointy end of the bitter melon spectrum and can be anywhere from almost grey green to a deep and vibrant Kelly green. Indian varieties range in color too and tend to have even sharper lobes. You want to avoid two colors: yellow skin and red seeds. Both mean the fruit is too mature to be really good eating.
And speaking of eating, what do you do with it? Yes, they are bitter, as the name implies, but they are appealing and appetizing, the same way eggplant is. In this heat, we're loathe to recommend soup or stews, but bitter melon is excellent in both. The melons are also very good deep fried whole, and then sliced on a plate with a little salt and chile. You'll find them in season into the fall, but some of the best bitter melons are available from now until the end of summer.
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