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Bitter Gourd

Bitter Gourd

(Momordica charantia) Also known as bitter melon, bitter cucumber or balsam pear. Found in the cuisine of tropical south China and most of South East Asia. Truly bitter, due to the presence of quinine (an anti-malarial substance), bitter gourd may take the Western palate some getting used to. The deeper green and younger they are the better, as they toughen with age. When young, it is possible to eat the melon in its entirety, seeds and pith included.

Bitter gourd may be eaten raw, as a salad, or fried and made into a sambal with onion and chili. In either case, it is advisable to first de-gorge them by slicing thinly, sprinkling with salt (or a mixture of salt and turmeric) to draw out the liquid and some of the bitterness, then drying them on paper towels before proceeding with the recipe. If your melons aren't as young as they should be the seeds will be hard and need to be removed.

Although it is an acquired taste, the bitter flavor can be very attractive in combination with spices. It makes a popular pickle in India. In Sri Lanka it is much sought after as a sambal when sliced and fried crisply before being dressed with coconut milk, sliced chilies and shallots. It is also cooked into a curry. In Burma, it is eaten raw, finely sliced and salted to draw out some of the bitterness, then mixed with sliced onions and garlic. In Chinese cuisine, it is usually stuffed with minced pork and served in a strong-flavored black bean sauce that can stand up to the bitter flavor. Sometimes it is blanched to remove some of the bitterness, then fried with egg.

The tender shoots and leaves, rich in vitamin A, are blanched and served with a savory dip made from chili and shrimp. The leaves may also be lightly fried with chili and salt, or cooked as a 'white vegetable', meaning simmered in coconut milk.

A cousin of the bitter gourd is the spiny bitter gourd (Momordica cochinchinesis) which looks like a prickly, yellow-green kiwifruit on a long green stem. Known in India as kantola or kakrol, tumbakaravila in Sri Lanka, teruah in Malaysia, Fak-khaao in Thailand, mokube-tsushi in Japan and buyok-buyok in the Philippines, it is not quite as bitter but used in the same way as bitter gourd. In the same family there is also a balsam apple (M.muricata) and another species (M.subangulata).

When purchasing, buy shiny, fresh looking bitter gourds which are green without any trace of yellow, a sign of age. Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, but not for more than a day or two, as gourds will continue to ripen and instead of a tender center, the seeds will develop and become hard. To prepare, slice crossways - thinly for salads and frying, thick so it can hold a filling if it is to be stuffed. Rub over with salt and turmeric, leave for 20 minutes, then fry until golden. For a milder flavor, the pieces should be blanched to remove some of the bitterness.

Like so many Asian foods, bitter gourd started out as a medicine - to purify the blood, counter diabetes and replenish the milk of nursing mothers. The leaves were used to treat sore eyes in elephants. It is one of the few ingredients stocked by Chinese herbalist that is sold fresh as opposed to dried. Bitter gourd tops the list of bioactive 'herbs' according to scientists in the Philippines, and other spin-offs of eating it include increased energy and stamina. The latest studies indicated bitter gourd is an invaluable dietary supplement for those with immune system damage.

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