The Taste of Bitter Melon: Ina Cariño’s Feast

Hilary Sun
March 6, 2024

As a child, my least favorite dish was sautéed bitter melon. To the adults in my community, they were a delicacy. As I watched them chew on the freshly cut gourd, I wondered how they could endure its sting and bite. They would tell me that, like many other things in life, an appreciation for bitter melon would be something I would only understand once I was older.

In Chinese, there is a phrase—chi ku, literally translated to “eating bitterness,” which is used to describe enduring hardship and suffering. As I grew to appreciate bitter melon’s unique taste, I also began to understand the obstacles those in my community faced as immigrants. I was reminded of this as I read “Bitter Melon,” one of the poems in Ina Cariño’s debut poetry collection, Feast. In the poem, the poet winces at the bitterness of the gourd, a taste that the grown-ups around them say is good for growing up. To these grown-ups, bitter melon represents the bitterness they have swallowed to survive in a hostile society.

The poems in Feast excavate hunger, consumption, and nourishment in its many forms. Even as we devour the decadent description of suckling pig, luncheon meat, and egg yolk cracked into milk and sugar to break fevers—just some of the many forms of nourishment offered by the poet’s ancestors, family, and community—we also choke on soured milk, pills, and white rice shells that represent the remains of the American Dream. Rich and succulent lyric sit alongside the uneasy questions at Feast’s core. In a world of consumers, how do we consume, and who is being consumed in the process?

The kinds of consumption promoted by cis, abled, and white-centric systems, the poet finds, are not nourishing. In “Milk,” the poet begins dating a white boy that smells like milk, only to find themself wearing away in the relationship. As they are complimented on their exotic looks and their great English by the boy’s parents, they think that perhaps they only “loved [the boy]…as a brown girl loves a white thing.” Ultimately, they leave the relationship when they discover that “when milk turns sour ferments blooms fetid under the nose / the only thing to do is pour it down the drain.” Later, in “Triptych with Cityscape” and “To the Boy Who Walks Backwards Everywhere He Goes,” the poet swallows pills on their quest for so-called normalcy, to no avail, and is eventually trapped in a psych ward. As their body decays, with the medication they are consuming, they “forget how to be a living / thing.” Consumption driven by the desire for able-mindedness and whiteness becomes a facade.

The poet also finds themself inheriting histories of undernourishment. Throughout history, civilizing projects and their relentless hunger for colonial resources have been justified based on the creation of the savage, the Other, and its need for enlightenment. The civilizing project is driven by (and cannot survive without) an appetite for an Other and its lands and resources. To be othered is to be made nonhuman, and to be made nonhuman is, in its own way, to be consumed. The poet mourns these terrible inherited histories—ones of imperialist conquistadors, death marches, stolen lands, and continued violence against brown bodies. In “Yesterday’s Traumas, Today’s Salt,” the poet drinks a heavily-salted broth “to trick [their] stomach / out of hunger” from lack of meat. They tie this lack of nourishment to the bloody impoverishment of the Philippines and their ancestors:

because my stolen body / is still burdened with salt, my tongue pinched with its bite…my muscles still remember old aches–as if suspended / in the salt of an ocean I crossed alone. how much can a body take? a certain kind of pain, this accumulation of salt. I was named anguish / before I was born…

As they wither under an overconsumption of salt, the poet emerges a husk: undernourished, deprived, and heavy with the weight of their traumas. They continue to hunger, trapped in a cycle of empty consumption, sometimes at the expense of others who are also marginalized.

But Feast pushes us to think beyond normative ideas of consumption. For the poet, the bitter melon the grown-ups eat reminds them of the unruliness of “[their] own green body.” “Huwag mo along kalimutan,” they beg. Do not forget me. They long to be made visible. They desire something beyond simply accepting the bite of the bitter; they want to bite back. Is there a way to honor and move forward with the bitter melon eaten by the previous generations while dreaming even bigger? Is there a way to eat to feel nourished?

The poet turns to intergenerational and communal forms of nourishment. Their lola nurses them back to health with home remedies to chase away the spirits that carry sickness. Uncles, aunties, cousins, and other loved ones feast with the poet on suckling, and as the poet eats, they become keenly aware of the animal that died to feed them. “[T]o eat is to be animal,” the poet’s lolo tells them in the collection’s title poem, “Feast,” breaking down the hierarchy between the human and the animal, the consumer and the consumed.

And so the poet imagines different ways to satisfy their hunger, transforming normative consumption into their own form of nourishment filled with awareness. They become both the eater and the eaten, even finding satisfaction in self-consumption. In “You Dream of Saints,” self-consumption becomes self-desire as the poet pleasures themself, even as it is considered sinning by the church. In Terrible Bodies,” the poet finds that “marrow / nourishes best coaxed / from familiar crave– / our own canine muscles. bitten inner cheek. in this way / we taste ourselves.”

Like the poet, I watched some of the grown-ups around me swallow the bitterness of the so-called American Dream, and together, we hungered for something more. Feast reminds us that we can break this cycle of bitterness and transform it into beautiful, imagined futures. To be eaten does not have to be othering; it can be a way of knowing and understanding. Perhaps this is why the poet ends the poem “Bitter Melon” with an invitation to us readers: “taste me. / taste me.”

Feast is available now from Alice James Books

Hilary Sun (she/her) is a disabled Chinese American. Her writing has appeared in Able Zine and the disability anthology The Ending Hasn’t Happened Yet (Sable Books, 2022).