I love the spring produce and all the fresh new flavors of the season. In the weekend farmers markets in Dallas there is an abundance of strawberries, asparagus, leaf lettuces, spinach, spring onions, radishes, broccoli rabe and kale. At the Indian markets red, green and yellow bell peppers glow next to mounds of brilliantly green chilies, curry leaves and leaf vegetables. Tucked in between purple, green and white eggplants and fresh green peas are baskets of green knobby rough textured bitter gourds. They all turn into beautiful, flavorful spring dishes.
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Bitter gourd, which is also called bitter melon and balsam pear (Momordica charantia), is a very nutritious and healthy vegetable. This green melon that is shaped more like a cucumber has uneven grooves and a rough texture and is unlike any others in the melon family. It is also the most bitter of edible vegetables. Just as chili peppers vary in size and degree of heat, there are many varieties of bitter gourd that differ substantially in the shape and bitterness. The Indian variety is dark green and spiky while the Chinese variety is lighter in color with a bumpy peel. Some Taiwanese, Japanese and Filipino varieties are ivory to white-colored.
Bitter gourds grow on vines in tropical and subtropical climates. They are cultivated in most parts of Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. They have a hollow center with a thin layer of flesh surrounding a seed cavity filled with large flat seeds and pith. Young bitter gourds tend to be bitterer than the ripe vegetable.
When a bitter gourd begins to ripen its color changes to shades of yellow, the interior has a reddish hue and it has less bitterness. When it is fully ripe it turns orange and splits into segments that curl back to expose seeds covered in bright red pulp. Bitter gourd is mostly cooked when green, or when it just starts turning yellow. The young shoots and leaves of the bitter gourd are also edible.
Selling Americans on bitter veggies
Even if its bitter taste does not appeal to you, its health benefits certainly will. It is low in calories and carbs, has high fiber content, and is high in vitamins and minerals. Bitter gourd is a proven hypoglycemic agent, a natural source of plant insulin that helps lower blood sugar levels. Indian herbal medicine, Ayurveda, prescribes it for controlling blood sugar and digestive disorders. It has a long history of use in Chinese and African herbal medicines too. Its medicinal uses are also popular in South American countries.
Bitter and astringent flavors are generally restrained in American cuisine. Bitter gourd is a delicious vegetable when cooked right and the taste buds are given the chance to become acquainted with the most misunderstood of the primary flavors. The healing properties of bitter gourd are becoming more widely accepted in the United States, especially among natural health practitioners. Advocates created the The National Bitter Melon Council in 2004 to build a community of bitter melon fans and advocate for the vegetable. The group hosts events and festivals in various cities in the United States to celebrate the health, social, culinary and creative possibilities of this underappreciated vegetable.
People who enjoy bitter gourd find its bitterness refreshing and palate cleansing. It is a favorite vegetable in Indian, Chinese, Southeast Asian, South Asian, and South American cuisines. In these cuisines its bitterness is recognized for its place in the flavor spectrum.
In Indian cuisine there are so many ways of cooking bitter gourd. The bitterness is tamed by cooking with of spices, shallots, yogurt, coconut, mango, potatoes, peanuts, tamarind or onions. They are also stuffed with spices and pan-fried. Spiced, sun-dried and deep-fried bitter gourd rings are a common dish. The bitterness can be reduced by salting pieces before cooking or tamed by blanching them for a few minutes.
This recipe makes a good side dish. The bitterness is tamed here by the addition of shallots and spices. Shallots have a pleasant crispness and are sweeter and milder in flavor than onions. They have a really nice way of incorporating themselves more fully into dishes.
Bitter Gourd With Shallots
6 to 8 medium sized bitter gourds
1 tablespoon salt
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
½ teaspoon ginger powder
½ teaspoon powdered red chili peppers (less for milder taste)
3 tablespoons of oil
3 to 4 shallots, thinly sliced
1. Slice the gourd in half lengthwise, scoop out and discard the pulp and seeds. Rub with salt and set aside for half an hour. Squeeze out the bitter juices and then cut the gourd into ¼- to ½-inch segments. You’ll be left with little C-shaped segments.
2. Combine the salt, turmeric, coriander powder, ginger powder and powdered chili pepper and mix well. Sprinkle the spice mix on the cut pieces to coat them with spices.
3. In a pan heat the oil and add shallots. Keep stirring so that they are evenly cooked.
4. Add the spiced bitter gourd pieces to the pan after three or four minutes. Reduce the heat and cook them covered till tender. Open the cover and stir a few times so that the vegetable is cooked and browned evenly.
Top photo: Bitter gourds. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran