I like to think that I’m an omnivorous eater. There are very few foods that I will absolutely refuse to eat. Having said that, there are some foods that I would prefer not to eat, mostly because I don’t think they’re particularly tasty and I could easily find a better alternative on the menu. Overrated might be the word I’m looking for. The Korean melon is one such food.
The Korean melon is a fascinating, no, maddening fruit. If you saw one for the first time, you might think it could be delicious. It’s a bright yellow ovoid about the size of a papaya lined with thin white stripes, kind of like an elongated yellow pumpkin. Perhaps you buy one, just to try it out. You bring it home, cut it open to find a pale white interior complete with a seed cavity with seeds encased in a translucent pulp. It almost looks like a cantaloupe (albeit an albino one), so you slice it into pieces and take a bite, imagining your mouth will be flooded with the sweet juices you’ve grown to expect from other melons.
But it doesn’t happen. You find that the flesh is almost crunchy, more like the rind of a watermelon or a cucumber than a melon. It even tastes like those things, there’s none of the sweetness you were expecting. All of the sweetness seems to be concentrated in the pulp. You wonder if you made a mistake, perhaps you bought one that wasn’t ripe. So you call your Korean friend and tell him about your experience. You might expect him to give you some tips on how to find a truly delicious Korean melon, but no, he just says that’s the way it’s supposed to taste.
Evaluated purely on its merits as a fruit, I would say that I feel strongly indifferent towards the Korean melon. The only bit worth eating flavorwise, in my opinion, is the pulp of the seed cavity, which actually tastes sweet and like a melon. But then again, it’s stringy and slimy, and very few fruits can get away with being stringy and slimy (I’m thinking a lot of ripe tropical fruits like mangos and durian) and the translucent gelatinous Korean melon pulp doesn’t have enough flavor to overcome the grossness. And even if you can get over the texture, it only makes up a very small bit of the edible fruit, so it’s really not worth it. In fact, if you want to replicate the experience of eating a slice of Korean melon, I’d suggest you simply peel a cucumber, dip it in melon juice, and take a bite. That’s basically the gist of it. It doesn’t get much better than that.
The Korean melon is a curiosity, a fruit that even at its ripest doesn’t taste like it’s at its full potential. I might speculate that this somehow represents something in the Korean cultural psyche about a Korean inferiority complex or something, but that would only be valid if all Koreans loved the Korean melon. Which they don’t. I would say that even among Koreans, it’s a divisive fruit. In fact, I’ve found that foreigners often like the Korean melon a lot more than Koreans do, perhaps because they think the whole “it looks like a melon but tastes like a sweet cucumber” thing is quite a novelty.
And if it was a novelty, Koreans might share their enthusiasm for the fruit. I myself will tolerate a plate of Korean melon from time to time. But that’s only when there is absolutely no alternative fruit available, which in Korea is never. I can think of at least five different fruits that are harvested in Korea that are more flavorful and as widely available as the Korean melon. If we’re going for similar seasonal offerings, there’s always the peaches and watermelons. In general, there are the persimmons which can be eaten in a slightly unripe state for a crisper texture similar to apples, or left to ripen to a jelly-like state that is extremely sweet and not unlike a mango, apples, juicy and crisp pears, sweet grapes that you need to squeeze out of the thick skins, strawberries which I would argue are better than most strawberries you will find anywhere else in the world, and of course the sweet and convenient to eat Jeju mandarins. Okay, that was eight fruits off the top of my head that are domestically produced. And thanks to globalization, you can easily get tropical fruits like bananas, pineapples, mangos, and even more exotic offerings like mangosteens and durian these days. In short, Korea suffers from no lack of quality fruit, so there really is no reason to put up a fourth-stringer like the Korean melon. It would be akin to placing Bebe in the Manchester United starting lineup and leaving Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney on the bench. It’s not fair to the Korean melon either, which I’m sure has some intriguing culinary potential (perhaps as a dessert ingredient, I could see some modernist chef doing wonders with the flavors, maybe in a cocktail of some sort?) but is completely outshone by almost every other fruit.
Of course, there will be people reading this that disagree with me completely. They’ll think that I’m being unnecessarily harsh on the Korean melon, that I’m not appreciating the flavors or subtleties or whatever. To these people, I will ask this: given the choice between a plate of Korean melon and a plate of watermelon, would you choose the Korean melon? If the other choice was strawberries, or apples, or peaches, or some other fruit, I’m sure almost no one would choose Korean melons. And that’s the thing. It’s no one’s favorite fruit. It probably wouldn’t crack the top five for most Koreans. But for some reason you find it on almost every summer fruit platter, and unsurprisingly, it’s the last fruit left. So why do we keep eating so much of it?