Asian bitter cucumber, more commonly known as bitter melon or balsam pear, is a long melon with a bumpy bright green rind, similar in appearance to the cucumber. Native to tropical parts of the world, it is a popular ingredient in Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines. The white, firm seeded flesh is bitter in taste because of its quinine content. Inedible when raw, bitter cucumber is cooked whole and stuffed, or chopped and added to main dishes and soups.
How to Cook Asian Bitter Cucumber
Prepare your cucumber. To use whole, split the cucumber with a knife. Scoop the white seeds and fibers from each half of the cucumber with a spoon, until it is thoroughly clean. Conversely, you may chop or slice the cucumber to add to a dish. Remove the ridged portion of the rind, which can be tough and increase the bitterness.
Blanching or sweating the cucumber reduces its bitter taste. Blanch the cucumber by placing the pieces in a pot of salted boiling water. Cook for about a minute until slightly soft but not fully cooked. Remove from the pot and place in ice water to stop the pieces cooking. Reserve until needed. To sweat the cucumber, place the pieces on a few layers of paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Let it sit for about half an hour, then rinse the sweated cucumber pieces in some cold water.
Cook chopped bitter cucumber by steaming or frying it lightly in a skillet, and season it with salt and pepper, herbs or even some cheese. You may also add the bitter cucumber to a Chinese-style stir fry or soup. Add it to any soup or stir fry just before the dish is fully cooked; the bitter cucumber's high water content will cause it to cook quickly and become mushy if added too soon.
To cook bitter cucumber halves, prepare halves and stuff them with any cooked meat mixture of your choice. Bake both halves on a baking sheet in the oven as you would stuffed squash halves, and serve with a spicy sauce, such as a coconut curry sauce.
You may also cook bitter cucumber to make a condiment or pickle. Make a simple bitter cucumber pickle by placing a cup of white vinegar in a pot and bringing it to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of sugar, 2 teaspoons of salt and a teaspoon of turmeric, if desired, to the boiling vinegar. After the mixture returns to the boil, place slices or chunks of bitter cucumber in it and boil for an additional couple of minutes. Remove the cucumber from the pot and let cool. Another preparation of bitter cucumber as a condiment is to shred the cucumber and fry it with Indian spices and oil until it becomes a thick paste, then seal it in a jar to meld the flavors. Serve it with rice and a raita, or yogurt dressing.