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There is Nothing Bitter About the Gourd

Welcome to our cultural food column! Today we are looking at the Gourd and why you should try incorporating it into your cooking.

Bitter Gourd is very much a marmite conversation at the ethnic dinner table. You either love it or hate it, and this fruit doesn’t stop there when it comes to creating heated debates.

It is known by so many names, often called bitter melon or cucumber but also balsam-pear, bitter apple, or bitter squash. It is called karela in India, nigauri in Japan, goya in Okinawa, ampalaya in the Philippines, and ku-gua throughout China. 

Momordica charantia (its plant name) has been thought to originate in eastern India or southern China but new research suggests that it originated from Africa before making its way to Asia. One thing is for certain, this vegetable has a long history and is known as an ‘old world’ vegetable suggesting a long and established food history.

So, What’s the Deal with the Vegetable of Many Names?

Bitter gourd is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family which includes squash, pumpkin, courgette, and gourds and is distinctly known by its rough textured “warty” appearance covered with ridges and bumps. The reason for its marmite status in ethnic cultures? It’s extremely bitter taste for one. The bioactive compounds called saponins and terpenoids found in bitter gourd is what accounts for the vegetable’s bitter taste. 

Despite its flavour profile, there is no denying the medicinal status that bitter gourd holds as part of a social history amongst ethnic communities. Highly recommended for people living with diabetes, the high content of antioxidants have been found to reduce blood sugar levels. Other papers have also investigated and suggested its potential role in anti-cancer, anti-HIV and anti-inflammatory activities.

Photo by Christophe Dion

Should we Gourd?

It is high in Vitamin C, folate, Vitamin A, is a good source of potassium and fibre as well as some iron and calcium. It has a rich source of antioxidants, flavonoids, and other polyphenol compounds, which places bitter gourd in good nutritional esteem. In fact, 100g of bitter gourd accounts for about 93% of your recommended daily intake of vitamin C, over 40% of Vitamin A and just under 30% of folate. 

All together it provides a powerhouse of anti-inflammatory effects, blood sugar regulation and nutritional benefits to the eyes, skin and gut. So, once you get accustomed to the taste and how to cook it, bitter gourd is a welcome addition to the plate.

Photo by Raimond Klavins

It pairs well with strong flavours, like cumin, garlic, ginger, chillies and onion, and here are a handy few tips on how to cook with gourd:

  1. Pair it with some natural sweeteners like jaggery, palm sugar or maple syrup to cut through the bitterness
  2. Try boiling it before cooking it as that will dilute some of the bitterness
  3. Add it as a natural source of bitterness needed for some dishes like Tom Yum soup 
  4. Bitter gourd is so versatile, so experiment with it to build up different textures. You can stir-fry, boil, sauté, steam, braise, bake, or even stuff it.