Bitter melon with eggs a perfect izakaya-style side dish to go with Okinawan or Japanese food. This tasty dish can also be a complete meal all on its own. It's a no fuss recipe with only a few main ingredients. As a huge fan of bitter melon, I'm excited for you to try it!
What is bitter melon?
Most commonly known as goya in Japan, bitter melon is an edible sub-tropical fruit that grows on a vine. It's known for its bitter flavor.
Bitter melon is easily recognized at the supermarket because of its bumpy skin. It's a close relative of zucchini, squash, pumpkin, and cucumber.
In Japan, goya is mostly associated with Okinawan food. If you had dinner at any Okinawan restaurant in Tokyo, there's a very good chance that you'd eat a dish containing goya.
To my surprise, bitter melon doesn't come from Okinawa or even Asia. This is where I discovered the taste. It actually originates in Africa.
The peak season for goya in Japan is June, after the end of the rainy season, until August. For this recipe I bought my goya in early September.
There are a few different varieties available in Japan. They vary on size and shape.
It's used as an ingredient for simple stir-fry. Bitter gourd slices can also be pickled. Lately, I've also been ordering thin slices of goya mixed with umeboshi pickled plum.
Here in Tokyo, it's available at local grocery stores. You'll also spot it at vegetable markets across Asia. If you're lucky, you'll be able to find it at an Asian market in North America as well.
What does bitter melon taste like?
Just as the name implies, it has a bitter taste. For some, it's too bitter to enjoy eating. Though, there are preparation methods to make it less bitter.
The texture is firm and crunchy. And the bumpy outside skin gives it an even more unusual, exotic taste.
It's really hard to compare to any other gourd or melon, besides how it looks on the surface. The bitter melon slices, when cooked, still have some crispness.
It's got that bite with juiciness released, like when you first dig your teeth into a bitter green apple. But your first taste of bitter melon may be a new level of bitterness for you!
For me, it was acquired taste that I quickly learned to love.
The outside peel of a green pepper is the closest comparison I can think of. Imagine a big, ugly cucumber with thick bumpy skin. The firmness is comparable to the stalk part of broccoli. The bitter taste I would compared to arugula, but at least triple the bitterness!
I will be honest – not everyone is going to fall in love with it. I did!
What's another name for bitter melon?
I first became familiar with the Okinawan name, goya（ゴーヤー). If you've been to Japan, you may have tried goya champlu (ゴーヤーチャンプルー). It's the most popular Okinawan dish that people automatically associate with goya.
In the rest of Japan, the Japanese name for bitter melon is nigauri (苦瓜). When I bought some for this recipe, the label said nigauri. I've never heard anyone use this name though. I find it's usually associated with Okinawan dishes and called goya.
In Japan, most of us tend to make this mental connection with Okinawa. The truth is, bitter gourd is no stranger to home cooks all over Asia.
In Mandarin, it's called kǔguā. In Korean, it's yeoju. In Thailand, it's called mara (Chinese form), mara kheenok (Indian form). And in Vietnam, it's named mướp đắng (Northern dialects), khổ qua (Southern dialects).
In English, bitter melon is also called bitter gourd, bitter squash, bitter apple, and balsam-pear.
What are the benefits of bitter melon?
There are some clear health benefits to adding bitter melon to your diet.
- Bitter melon contains a chemical that acts like insulin to help reduce blood sugar levels (source: WebMD).
- It's especially rich in Vitamin C and high in Vitamin A (source: Healthline).
- It's good for the skin and hair.
- It cleanses your liver.
What are the side effects?
Mostly, I wouldn't worry about the side effects of bitter melon unless you are diabetic or are taking medication.
From all my research, the general guidance I've read is to not over-consume it.
It's a healthy addition to your diet to enjoy on occasion.
The risks related to eating bitter melon include:
diarrhea, vomiting, other intestinal issues, and dangerous lowering of blood sugar if taken with insulin (source: Healthline).
Before taking any kind of supplement made from bitter melon, it's recommended that you first consult your doctor.
How to prepare goya (advice from chefs in Tokyo)
How do you get the bitterness out of goya?
I asked chefs and home cooks in Tokyo that question. Here are their tips preparing goya to remove some of the bitterness of bitter melon.
- "Remove the seeds, slice, and then blanch in boiling water."
- "Rub it with salt."
- "Dust it with sugar and salt until a ton of fluid comes out. Then rinse it."
- "Clean as much of the white pith as you can. Salt it and draw out the moisture. Then blanch."
- "Cut it and take seeds and guts away. Slice it thin and rub with salt. Let the fluid out and rinse. Boil in hot water for 20-30 seconds. Dry it and rub it with sugar."
- "Fry goya using mayo instead of oil and it works, making it milder."
- "Use a very sharp knife. Remove the seeds. After cutting, mix with salt. Gently mix don’t squeeze. Let it sit for 3-5 mins. Then, rinse with cold water."
- Or... "The trick might be to use the bitterness of goya to your advantage instead of just toning it down."
In general, the advice I've read is sprinkling with salt or submersing the bitter gourd slices in salted water.
Tips for cooking bitter melon with eggs
- Pre-heat your fry pan at medium heat. Once you add the bitter gourd slices to the caramelized onions in the fry pan, you can turn up to medium-high heat to stir fry. Since butter and sesame oil easily oxidizes (turns brown) at high temperatures, I prefer to keep it at a medium temperature. This also prevents me from burning the onions if I get distracted.
- To minimize the number of pans I have to wash, I push the bitter gourd and onions off the side when they are done. Then, I add the beaten eggs to the center of the pan to scramble separately.
- You can pour the eggs right on top of the sliced bitter melons and onion. It tastes the same. For better presentation, I scramble the eggs separately to get "fluffy eggs". This keeps the bitter melon looking shiny and "clean". Otherwise, it gets coated with egg and ends up looking a bit sloppy.
- Rather than adding more soy sauce, I add about half teaspoon of salt at most to help bring out the flavors.
- To add even more complexity to the flavor, you could try adding some mirin and brown rice vinegar. If I was cooking for guests at a dinner party, I would do this. For a healthy meal at home, I prefer cutting out the mirin because of the sugar content. Mirin in sweet cooking wine with a 40 to 50 % sugar content.
- After stir frying, I garnish the top with nori seaweed powder and katsuobushi. If you can't find either of those, you could try finely sliced green onions, black pepper, white pepper.
Bitter Melon with Eggs (No Spam or pork)
- ½ fresh bitter melon (goya)
- ½ onion
- 3 eggs
- 1 tbsp grass-fed butter
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp soy sauce
- 1-2 pinches sea salt
- 5 tbsp katsuobushi (bonito flakes)
- 1 tsp nori dried seaweed powder
Make dashi broth
- Boil a ¼ cup of water.
- Fill a cup with about 3 Tbsp katsuobushi (bonito flakes). Pour the hot water on top and let it sit.
Preparation of vegetable ingredients
- Trim off both ends of the onion with a sharp knife. Cut in half, peel, and rinse in cold water.
- Place onion face down (flat side) on cutting board. Cut lengthwise into ⅛ inch (3-4 mm) slices.
- Rinse the bitter melon in cold water.
- Cut the bitter melon in half lengthwise.
- Using a metal spoon, scoop out the seeds and scrape off the inner white pith.
- Turn over the bitter melon half so the skin is facing up. Slice into ⅛ inch (3-4 mm) thickness. Discard the tip (stem end).
- Optional: To decrease the bitterness, sprinkle bitter melon slices with salt. Let it sit for 10 minutes.
- After 10 minutes, rinse in cold water and drain well. Remove all the moisture.
Preparation of eggs mixture
- Crack 3 eggs into a bowl. Mix with a fork or chopsticks, just like making scrambled eggs.
- Add soy sauce and 1 Tbsp dashi soup stock (that you made earlier with katsuo-bushi and hot water). Mix together.
- Put egg mixture aside.
Cooking bitter melon with eggs
- Preheat frypan on low heat.
- Add heaping tbsp of butter to fry pan.
- As soon as the butter has melted (avoiding it turning brown), add onion slices to pan.
- Cook onions at low to medium-low heat until they begin to caramelize. Stir with a spatula as needed to prevent burning.
- Add bitter melon to frypan. Increase to medium heat to stir-fry. Stir often with a spatula.
- Once both sides of goya begin to turn golden brown, push caramelized onions and bitter melon slices to one side of the fry pan.
- Turn the heat all the way down.
- Once fry pan has cooled down, add sesame oil to the free side of the fry pan. Let sesame oil heat up for 30 seconds.
- Pour egg mixture into the free side of the pan, on top of the sesame oil.
- Once egg mixture begins to cook, gently stir with a spatula to make fluffy scrambled eggs.
- When eggs are almost cooked through (but still slightly runny), gently mix in bitter melon and onion.
- Serve hot on a plate.
- Garnish the top with nori seaweed powder and katsuo-bushi flakes.
What is the best way to eat bitter melon?
Your non-stick pan or frying pan with cooking oil is bitter melon's best friend. My preference is cooking it on medium to low heat in grass-fed butter. Most cooks in Japan will give it a quick stir in a hot oil. My second recommendation is sesame oil.
Technically, bitter melon can be eaten raw. But I'm sure most people prefer it in a stir-fry dish like goya champlu. Cooking bitter melon will make it less bitter.
Other recipes to try:
What goes well with bitter melon with scrambled eggs?
White rice or genmai brown rice