• Hai-Van

The story of a smart bitter melon plant


Mom sometimes cooks her favorite soup of bitter melons stuffed with ground pork. Mom said in Vietnam bitter melon is called MƯỚP ĐẮNG or KHỔ QUA. Actually it's not a type of melon, it's a fruit in the gourd family. MƯỚP is understood as the fruit and ĐẮNG is bitter. Interestingly people also like to call it KHỔ QUA. KHỔ is suffering, hardness or affliction. And QUA means overcome. In general a dish with bitter melon also means a wish to overcome hardness.

For me, Mom’s KHỔ QUA soup only tastes bitter. (Does it mean that it only makes me suffer?) However Mom always told me that bitter melon is good for your health, and when you are used to it, you are going to like KHỔ QUA's bitter taste. She also asserts that when it's cooked properly bitterness would elaborate into freshness and sweetness.

Well, until now I don’t think so but I can handle small piece of stuffed KHỔ QUA and a bit of soup. That’s it.


This summer, during the second year of Covid-19, my family could not make the trip of the year to Vietnam as expected, like previous years. Mom decided to plant some vegetables for the Vietnamese cuisine in the garden bed. One day, she collected some KHỔ QUA seeds and planted them in nursing pots. She had about 5 of them. The seeds sprouted easily after a couple of days. It took the seedlings about 2 weeks to be strong enough to be transplanted to the garden bed.



Mom was eager to see them growing as she admitted that this was the first time she grew KHỔ QUA. They were quite strong vines. While other plants in the garden bed needed a lot of care and were harassed by bunnies sometimes, those KHỔ QUA just kept growing like nothing ever happened. Then within the next week Mom had to make trellises for them to climb on.


Two weeks after that, they started to bloom with male flowers. Mom looked up information about bitter melons and told me that this plant behaves just like others in the gourd family (such as pumpkin, melon, cucumber, squash and luffa). Their flowers look almost the same in shape, yellow , just different in size. After male flowers start blooming for about 1-2 weeks, female flowers will appear to bear fruit if they are pollinated. I looked at the thin vines and wondered if they could produce any fruit.

One day, Mom announced:

“There are 2 female flowers on the vines,” I was very excited but doubtful as the flowers were really tiny. I took a picture of them to see how they would grow later. After being pollinated the female flowers closed its petals and started to feed its fruit. Amazingly, after two days, there were other female flowers getting pollinated. The two fruits were in the same vine and close to each other. Mom confidently said that we would have 2 KHỔ QUA which was enough for a bowl of soup.

Day by day, I realized something strange. The older fruit grew much bigger since then but the younger one was exactly the same as it had been days ago.

1 week, 2 weeks, then 3 weeks went by. Mom and I could not figure what was happening to the younger fruit as it was still tiny.

“Is it dying? If so, why is it still green and healthy, but just not growing,” I wondered.

Meanwhile, we had one more KHỔ QUA on another vine. It was growing really fast like the first one. Then Mom decided to harvest the big one.

She said “Maybe, do you think …”

I nodded “We should try..”

2 days later, while wandering around the garden bed, I spotted one thing.

“Mom, come over here, hurry!" I exclaimed.

“What? Oh, another KHỔ QUA. Good,” Mom answered.

“No, here, this one,” I said. And Mom's face looked quite satisfied

“I was right, haha," she said happily.

Finally, the tiny KHỔ QUA was getting bigger after Mom harvested the big one. The bitter melon vine had saved her energy to feed the bigger one first while keeping the small one for later. We looked at each other and smiled,

“How smart this plant is,”

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