Like many cucurbits, bitter melon is an annual climber, which bears both male and female flowers. It has deeply lobed leaves and bears a profusion of yellow flowers with a high proportion male. The fruit is generally cucumber shaped and has a distinctive warty appearance. However, appearance varies widely between varieties, with colour ranging from pure white to dark olive green; size from barely 5cm to over 40cm; and the bumps being smooth and rounded to sharp and ridged.
Bitter melon is consumed as an immature fruit in many Asian and Indian cuisines. The fruit is cut open and the seeds and membranes removed. The flesh is then prepared in a variety of ways, sometimes including salting beforehand to remove excess bitterness. Bitter melon can be found in salads, soups, stir fries, curries or just lightly steamed and eaten with sauce. One popular method involves stuffing the internal cavity with a meat based filling then cooking by either steaming or baking.
As a tropical fruit, bitter melon is ideally suited to winter production in the Northern Territory, with summer production through Queensland and as far south as Sydney. There is potential to grow it using protected cropping systems in cooler areas and out of peak season. It is grown on trellises and hand harvested continuously throughout the growing season. A generally hardy crop, proper assessment of harvest maturity is important as this can have a major impact on crop quality, yield and value.
The majority of Australian production of bitter melons is sold domestically through central markets and directly through retailers (especially those with a large south east Asian clientele) in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.
The bitter melon industry in Australia is classified as a developing industry and its interests are supported and represented by AUSVEG, the national peak industry body representing Australian vegetable and potato growers. In the Northern Territory, growers of Asian vegetables, including bitter melon, are also represented by the Northern Territory Farmers Association.
Facts and figures
- Bitter melon is a member of the Cucurbitaceae plant family
- It is grown in hot humid climates
- The major region producing bitter melon in Australia is the Northern Territory
- Production practices are similar for cucumbers
- Harvesting bitter melons is labour intensive and harvesting must be well-timed to ensure optimum quality
- The entire Australian production of bitter melon is consumed domestically
All bitter melons produced in Australia are consumed domestically. It is usually produced on small areas of small landholdings, e.g. 0.5ha of bitter melons may be grown on properties of 5 or 20ha, in conjunction with other horticultural crops.