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Bitter melon fruits are slowly gaining a following on the Outer Cape

Bitter melon
Elspeth Hay
/
Bitter melon

Digree Rai and her son David are farmers in Truro. They emigrated here from Nepal in 2011 and they say there’s one crop that’s common there that almost no one recognizes on the Cape.

People call it bitter melon or bitter gourd.

Bitter melon looks like a cucumber but pointy at each end and covered in small green bumps and spikes. David says in Nepal it goes by a similar name:

"Tite karela. Karela means squash, and then tite means bitter."

They get a lot of questions about them at the market.

 Digree Rai
Elspeth Hay
/
Digree Rai at the Wellfleet Farmers Market.

"A lot of people are always wondering what they are. I just have to sit there all day long whenever we have them answering questions."

In Nepal, tite karela or bitter melon is sought after — not necessarily because of its flavor, which lives up to the name, but because of a long list of health benefits. It’s said to increase metabolism, ease digestion, cleanse the liver, and help with diseases like diabetes and cancer.

Digree and David explain that if you do some research on the internet and how it benefits you, there’s a lot of information about bitter melon.

David says they usually sauté it with potatoes and beans.

Digree says the key is the spices — first she gets a pan hot and adds fenugreek and cumin and oil and then stirs in a whole bunch of flavorful foods from the garden:

"Garlic, onion, chili pepper, bitter melon — chopping chopping — potato, some beans, some eggplant, somebody use some chicken meat. Cooking, not too long, maybe 15 minute ready. A little bit bitter, very good taste," she explains.

Digree says this dish of sauteed veggies and chicken with bitter melon is very common in Nepal, and well-known as an all around health food. And she says that while she’s never heard of anyone in her home country eating the leaves, a Jamaican cook that she met here on the Outer Cape puts them into smoothies. Bitter melon is found all over Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, where cooks make the fruit into everything from pickles to soft drinks to Indian curries to soups to a version of stuffed squash filled with lentils and grated coconut.

Digree walks me over to where the plant is growing. It’s bigger than I thought. I asked if they always grow it up.

"Yeah growing up up up! Making big bush. Climb up."

bitter melon vine
Elspeth Hay
/
Bitter melon vine

The bitter melon vines climb up small saplings that Digree and David have cut down to form into a tall trellis, well over my head. They say the plant likes hot weather, so as soon as the frosts come, the season will end. In the meantime, the bitter melon fruits are slowly gaining a following on the Outer Cape.

Digree says that in Provincetown more people know about it because of all the different cultural groups of people that are there. And you have a better chance of finding someone there that knows what to do with it than anywhere else really.

I tried one, and bitter is never my first choice but bitter flavor mellows a bit as it cooks and mixed with other veggies, bitter melon is subtle and well worth it given all the health benefits. It’s in season from August through early October in our area and you can find it at farmers' markets on the Outer Cape — or ask at your market and maybe they’ll start growing it

Bitter Melon Curry:

https://www.indianhealthyrecipes.com/bitter-gourd-curry-recipe-karela-sabzi/

Cantonese Bitter Melon Soup

https://homenaturallymade.com/bitter-melon-rib-soup/

Stuffed Bitter Melon

https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1023038-keema-bhare-karelay-bitter-melon-stuffed-with-minced-chicken

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.