Wholesale markets in India, from south to north, all display mountains of vegetables and always in first place is “karela,” the bitter gourd Momordica charantia. Bitter gourds, also commonly known as bitter melons or balsam pears, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but the cultivar typical of India has a narrower shape with a pointed end and a surface with ridges resembling rows of teeth.
Bitter gourds originated in the Gulf of Bengal on the coast of Corromandel and made their way to most of tropical and sub-tropical Asia. They were first brought to Europe by way of sea in 1764. They had already reached China in the 14th century, where a different type (larger, oblong, lighter green and with a warty surface) had been selected and favored.
But why has such a bitter fruit become so popular, at least in Asia and in some tropical islands around the world (really, Hawaii is the only place in USA where bitter gourds are part of the traditional cuisine)? Well, when it comes to food and flavors, one can say that “bitterness defines our humanity.” Unlike other mammals, humans are the only creatures to have developed a taste for bitterness. In fact, bitter compounds evolved in plants as a mechanism of defense against predators. They also act as a warning that toxic alkaloids might be present.
In the case of bitter gourds, there are so many beneficial medicinal and nutritional uses that it took just a little bit of cooking skills to find a way to overcome the bitter taste. First, fruits should be harvested at immature stage when dark green in color, similar to harvesting a cucumber. Then the center part that contains the seeds should be carefully scooped out. The remaining is cut into slices and ready to be cooked. To remove some of the bitterness, blanching is necessary and can be repeated up to three times, changing the water each time. The sliced fruits can then be prepared in several ways: stir fried, in salads, and in curry dishes (see recipes).
People in India traditionally use the bitter gourd as the primary food to prevent and treat diabetes due to the hypoglycemic effect of concentrated bitter extracts. Research is being made for cancer prevention and for treatment of various infections. There are several other uses in traditional medicine all over Asia and Africa, and different parts of the plant, not only the fruits, can be used.
A related species, Momordica cymbalaria, grows wild in Southern India and is on the verge of being depleted and becoming extinct under urban pressure. It is a perennial vine and the smaller fruits have very high levels of vitamin C and potassium. They also seem to have an even more powerful effect on treating diabetes. Efforts are currently made to domesticate it.
Bitter gourd is one of these first seeds from India that has a tremendous potential to make its way to our tables. The plant can grow as an annual in our temperate gardens, and it takes just a little bit of adventurous spirit to learn how to cook it. Some local cultivars are also reported to be less bitter, like the one known as “Margoze d’Inde” in the Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. To learn more go to www.BitterMelon.org
Richard Bernard is the resident seed expert at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and travels the world, not just to collect seeds but also the stories that go with the seeds. Richard lives in Northern New Mexico where he manages the farmers’ market at the Pueblo of Pojoaque and is involved in supporting farming projects on tribal lands.