A natural marvel, the purest white bitter melon variety we know of, Jyunpaku bitter melon reminds us of the elegant white pearls found off the coast of Okinawa.
The Japanese proverb “Ryou yaku wa / kuchi ni nigashi” (literally “Good medicine tastes bitter in your mouth”) perfectly sums up bitter melon — or as it is known on the Japanese island of Okinawa — goya.
Goya — Momordica charantia — originated in the tropics of south Asia. It’s believed to have made its way to China in the 15th or 16th century, and then on to Japan in the Edo Period of the 16th century. It’s thought the word “goya” derives from the Chinese word “kugua,” which means “gourd” in English.
The name “Nigauri” or “Bitter Melon” was officially recorded in 1713 in Okinawa’s “Ryukyu Koku Yuraiki,” a topographical journal compiled by the Royal Government of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It was featured in many recipes in the southern part of Okinawa and the island of Kyushu.
Bitter melon has many names, including balsam pear, and bitter apple. In India, it’s known as “karela.” in Sri Lanka, it’s “sinhala.” Depending on where you are in Japan, you’ll also find it called nigagori, toguri, tsuru-reishi, or gora, demonstrating just how widely it’s embraced across Asian cuisines and cultures.
There are many varieties of bitter melon, and as its name implies, it packs an astringent punch. While it can be an acquired taste, like coffee or hops, it’s also rather addictive for those who love its flavor.
The compounds cucurbitacin — which is also present in cucumbers and melons — and momordicine lend goya its bitter flavor. They’re also part of what makes it so good for you!
Bitter melon is a nutritional powerhouse with its antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-cancer properties. It contains high levels of Vitamins A ,B, C, iron, fiber and potassium, as well as minerals like calcium, phosphorus and magnesium.
It also contains charantin and polypeptide-p, a hypoglycemic protein that helps regulate blood sugar, and it has been extensively studied for its promise as a natural treatment for diabetes. In addition, laboratory studies have shown that bitter melon extract kills certain kinds of cancer cells.
Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine use bitter melon for its blood purifying and detoxifying qualities. It is also used as a cooling agent, for the treatment of edema (water retention), and for supporting the liver, gallbladder and kidneys. Its bitterness is an appetite stimulant, which is especially good in the heat of summer.
Shiro-goya — white bitter melon — is milder than its green counterparts. Jyunpaku — which means “pure white” —- goya melon is our favorite for its pearly white color and exceptional, mild taste. Unlike other kinds of bitter melon, it’s not necessary to rub it with salt or boil it before cooking it — and it can even be eaten raw!
Jyunpaku goya melon is a staple in the Okinawan islands of Japan, between the East China and Philippine seas.
Writer and educator Dan Buettner has identified Okinawa as one of five so-called “blue zones,” where people consistently live beyond 100 years old. Though there are many reasons for Okinawans’ famously long and healthy lives, diet is key. The traditional Okinawan diet is high in soy products; vegetables like bitter melon, sweet potatoes, cabbage, and daikon radish; and goes easy on meat and fish. Borrowing from traditional Chinese medicine, Okinawan culture regards food as medicine.
Bitter melon is a fabulous addition to stir-fries and soups. It can be steamed, fried, or stuffed like a squash. Its bitterness makes it a great addition to spicy curries. Whip it into a super-nutritious smoothie, or shave it thin and use it in salads or for snacking. We love to make a refreshing summer drink by blending it with ice, a touch of lime juice, and a bit of agave. It cools the body and the soul! On Okinawa, it’s the main ingredient in goya chanpuru, a stir fry made with egg, tofu, and in modern times, pork. In Taiwan, white bitter melon is used in ice cream and other desserts!
Interestingly, the bitter melon does sweeten as it ripens. When the fruit is mature, a bright red sac forms around the seeds. The seed pulp of Jyunpaku reminds us of sweet cherry candy, and it’s the best of any bitter melon we’ve tried!
The thick fruit of Jyunpaku averages 8 to 10 inches long. Its vines are prodigious, so trellising can make it easier to manage. Plant Jyunpaku in the late spring or early summer, as it loves warm weather, and harvest it in late summer or fall, when the fruit turns from green to white.
Find Jyunpaku bitter melon seeds here.