Bitter melon

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Bitter melon
File:Charantia flower.jpg
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Violales
Family: Cucurbitaceae
Genus: Momordica
Species: M. charantia
Binomial name
Momordica charantia

Momordica charantia is a tropical and subtropical vine of the family Cucurbitaceae, widely grown for edible fruit, which is among the most bitter of all vegetables. English names for the plant and its fruit include bitter melon or bitter gourd (Template:Zh-cp), karaila (from Urdu & Hindi), pavakkya (from Malayalam), kaKara kaya (from Telugu) , parikkai (from Tamil), hanzal (from Arabic), ampalaya (from Tagalog). The original home of the species is not known, other than that it is a native of the tropics. It is widely grown in India, South Asia, The Philippines, Southeast Asia, China, Africa and the Caribbean.



Bitter melons in a Chinatown market

Also known as Ku gua, the herbaceous, tendril-bearing vine grows to 5 m. It bears simple, alternate leaves 4-12 cm across, with 3-7 deeply separated lobes. Each plant bears separate yellow male and female flowers.

The fruit has a distinct warty looking exterior and an oblong shape. It is hollow in cross-section, with a relatively thin layer of flesh surrounding a central seed cavity filled with large flat seeds and pith. Seeds and pith appear white in unripe fruits, ripening to red; they are intensely bitter and must be removed before cooking. The flesh is crunchy and watery in texture, similar to cucumber, chayote or green bell pepper. The skin is tender and edible. The fruit is most often eaten green. Although it can also be eaten when it has started to ripen and turn yellowish, it becomes more bitter as it ripens. The fully ripe fruit turns orange and mushy, is too bitter to eat, and splits into segments which curl back dramatically to expose seeds covered in bright red pulp.

Bitter melon comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. The typical Chinese phenotype is 20 to 30 cm long, oblong with bluntly tapering ends and pale green in color, with a gently undulating, warty surface. The bitter melon more typical of India has a narrower shape with pointed ends, and a surface covered with jagged, triangular "teeth" and ridges. Coloration is green or white. Between these two extremes are any number of intermediate forms. Some bear miniature fruit of only 6 - 10 cm in length, which may be served individually as stuffed vegetables. These miniature fruit are popular in Southeast Asia as well as India.

Culinary uses

File:Goya Chanpuru Large.JPG
A small green bitter melon (front) and a scoop of Okinawan gōyā champurū stirfry (back)

Bitter melons are seldom mixed with other vegetables due to the strong bitter taste, although this can be moderated to some extent by salting and then washing the cut melon before use.

Bitter melon is often used in Chinese cooking for its bitter flavor, typically in stir-fries (often with pork and douchi), soups, and also as tea.

It is also a popular vegetable in Indian and Pakistani cooking, where it is often prepared with potatoes and served with yogurt on the side to offset the bitterness. Bitter melon fried in oil and then stuffed with other spicy ingredients is very popular in Andhra Pradesh, a south Indian state.

Bitter melon is rarely used in mainland Japan, but is a significant component of Okinawan cuisine.

In Vietnam, raw bitter melon slices consumed with dried meat floss and bitter melon soup with shrimp are popular dishes.

It is prepared into various dishes in the Philippines, where it is known as ampalaya. Ampalaya may also be stir-fried with ground beef and oyster sauce, or with eggs and diced tomato. A very popular dish from the Ilocos region of the Philippines, pinakbet, consists mainly of bitter melons, eggplant, okra, string beans, tomatoes, lima beans, and other various regional vegetables stewed with a little bagoong-based stock.

The young shoots and leaves may also be eaten as greens; in the Philippines, where bitter melon leaves are most commonly consumed, they are called dahon (leaves) ng ampalaya. The seeds can also be eaten, and give off a sweet taste, but have been known to cause vomiting and stomach upset.

Medicinal uses

Bitter melons have been used in various Asian traditional medicine systems for a long time [1]. Like most bitter-tasting foods, bitter melon stimulates digestion. While this can be helpful in people with sluggish digestion, dyspepsia, and constipation, it can sometimes make heartburn and ulcers worse. The fact that bitter melon is also a demulcent and at least mild inflammation modulator, however, means that it rarely does have these negative effects, based on clinical experience and traditional reports.

Perhaps the best substantiated use to date is that of bitter melon for people with diabetes mellitus. Several preliminary (non-randomized, non-blinded) clinical trials suggest this benefit, though controlled trials are necessary for confirmation [2]. In the Philippines, bitter melon tea is used in blood sugar control for poor people as exemplified in the very successful Operation Diabetes [3]. For a detailed review of studies involving bitter melon and diabetes, see Abascal and Yarnell 2005.

In ayurvedic medicine, bitter melon is popularly seen as a "plant-insulin." It has been demonstrated that bitter melon contains a protein similar to bovine insulin, sometimes referred to as p-insulin or polypeptide-p (Baldwa, et al. 1977). When purified and injected subcutaneously into patients with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM), it acted very similar to slow-acting animal insulins and was able to sustain patients [4]. One child in this small study who previously had many side effects from bovine insulin was able to use p-insulin exclusively for 5 months with no sign of problems. This represents the potential for a vegetarian alternative to animal insulin for patients with IDDM, as well as a potentially more sustainable source of insulin, and should be further developed. It is not possible to substitute eating bitter melon for taking insulin.

Though it has been claimed that bitter melon’s bitterness comes from quinine,[5] no evidence could be located supporting this claim. Bitter melon is traditionally regarded by Asians, as well as Panamanians and Colombians, as useful for preventing and treating malaria. Laboratory studies have confirmed that various species of bitter melon have anti-malarial activity, though human studies have not yet been published [6].

Laboratory tests suggest that compounds in bitter melon might be effective for treating HIV infection [7]. As most compounds isolated from bitter melon that impact HIV have either been proteins or glycosproteins (lectins), neither of which are well-absorbed, it is unlikely that oral intake of bitter melon will slow HIV in infected people. It is possible oral ingestion of bitter melon could offest negative effects of anti-HIV drugs, if a test tube study can be shown to be true in people [8]. In one preliminary clinical trial, an enema form of a bitter melon extract showed some benefits in people infected with HIV (Zhang 1992). Clearly more research is necessary before this could be recommended.

The other realm showing the most promise related to bitter melon is as an immunomodulator. One clinical trial found very limited evidence that bitter melon might improve immune cell function in people with cancer, but this needs to be verified and amplified in other research [9]. If proven correct this is another way bitter melon could help people infected with HIV.

Names in other languages

File:Cooking Bitter Melons.jpg
Bitter melons being cooked in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Austronesian languages

Dravidian languages

Indic languages

Japonic languages

Sino-Tibetan languages

Other languages


  • A "bitter melon face" (苦瓜臉) is a common Chinese description for an angry or serious face.


  • Abascal K, Yarnell E (2005) "Using bitter melon to treat diabetes" Altern Complemen Ther 11(4):179-184
  • H.K.Bakhru (1997). Foods that Heal. The Natural Way to Good Health. Orient Paperbacks. ISBN 81-222-0033-8. 
  • Baldwa VS, Bhandari CM, Pangaria A, Goyal RK (1977) “Clinical trial in patients with diabetes mellitus of an insulin-like compound obtained from plant source” Upsala J Med Sci 82:39-41.

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