There will be many of you reading this article who have never tried bitter gourd, or tried it once and never went back – and I can’t blame you.
As someone who grew up on the stuff, also called bitter melon, it’s not only visually unappealing, it’s not the tastiest vegetable either.
But it just might be the secret superfood we all need in our diet.
I was first introduced to the vegetable when I was growing up in my South Indian household in the UK, and whenever my mother was cooking bitter gourd – or ‘karela’, as we called it – I would be fascinated by its alien-like shape and texture.The Indian variety we ate was long and green with pointy ends and a jagged surface, unlike Chinese bitter gourd which has a smoother surface.
It wasn’t our favourite dish as kids; the crunchy texture and bitter, slightly peppery taste made it unpalatable when eaten raw, but Mum would slice the karela open and then pour a filling of mixed vegetables and spices into each, before closing it shut by wrapping it in thread and baking them in the the oven until they were soft. Other times she would chop them up and add them to vegetable curries. Once it was cooked and mixed with a lot of other things, bitter gourd did actually taste great.
At the time I wasn’t aware of the huge health benefits of this vegetable, which is closely related to squash, pumpkin, zucchini (courgettes)and cucumber, which are also from the gourd family.
One cup of bitter gourd contains 93 percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin C, 44 percent of the RDI of vitamin A and 17 percent of folate. Each one is also packed with potassium, zinc and iron.
“These vitamins and minerals, in particular vitamin C, are very, very important in terms of immune protection for the body,” explains Dr Faryal Luhar, a naturopathic doctor at DNA Health & Wellness Centre in Dubai. in Dubai. “And folate is really important when it comes to a process in our body called methylation, which helps to protect and heal our DNA from the wear and tear it goes through every day. Folate is also very important for women who are ready to conceive or are pregnant, and for the health of the baby.”
Bitter gourd is best known for helping to reduce blood sugar and can therefore be used to treat diabetes-related conditions.
“It can be used for poor glucose regulation and anything to do with glucose disorders if one is insulin resistant or starting to show this,” says Dr Faryal. “It can be used for blood sugar elevations and even for type 2 diabetics. This is one of the main nutritional recommendations that I give, along with all of the other natural medicines and other strategies that I would prescribe to be able to tackle elevated blood sugar and insulin resistance.”
New research by St Louis University in the US indicates that bitter gourd might also contain properties that prevent cancer from growing and spreading.
“The lab and animal studies we’ve carried out with bitter gourd show potential for use an alternative therapy to complement traditional cancer treatments,” Ratna Ray, PhD and professor of pathology at the university, told Livehealthy. “We were looking to test new foods that we thought might have cancer-fighting properties, but were not being tested a lot already or weren’t readily available on the market, like green tea or curcumin. And we settled on bitter gourd, as we know it has some very positive health benefits.”
Professor Ray, who has been eating bitter gourd since her own childhood growing up in India, was amazed at the results of the animal tests.
“They showed an approximately 50 percent reduction in tumour growth,” she says. “The bitter melon works by inhibiting the replication of breast, prostate and head and neck cancer cells. The next step is to find funding for human trials.”
So, why aren’t we eating more bitter gourd? I stopped eating it when I moved away from home at the age of 17. Mum knew it wasn’t my favourite so rarely prepared it when I visited home, although she and my father still eat it very regularly.
It’s hard to make tasty dishes with it, especially for someone who isn’t great at cooking. It wasn’t available in major supermarkets in the UK, so you had to hunt it down in smaller Indian or Chinese-owned shops. When I moved to Dubai seven years ago at the age of 34, I was surprised to see bitter gourd readily available in Carrefour, Lulu Hypermarket, Park n Shop and it’s even on delivery options like Kibsons, Farm Box and Barakat Fresh.
Even more astonishing is how cheap it is, starting from Dh7 for a kilo. So, if it’s readily available in the UAE, super-cheap and full of nutrients, why aren’t we finding ways to eat it and why aren’t we seeing it on restaurant menus?
“People who are not from Asia or of Asian heritage might not actually know about bitter gourd,” explains Dr Faryal. “It’s grown in the Asian continent because that’s the climate needed to cultivate it and obviously people from that region would be eating more locally-grown vegetables and fruits. In a country like India, where a large part of the population is vegetarian, they would be cooking a lot more plant-based foods such as karela.”
The UAE’s large Indian population could explain why the vegetable is so readily available in supermarkets, and may even be in that mixed veg curry you ordered, without you even knowing.
“The other reason that people aren’t eating the vegetable is that it is quite bitter-tasting,” continues Dr Faryal. “It is not a taste that everybody loves but many of its health benefits actually come from its bitter taste.”
So what other ways are there of eating it?
“Some people steam it, some people grill it,” says Dr Faryal. “I’ve also heard of people who juice it, which is something I’m going to try: cut it up into pieces, take out the core seeds and maybe soak it in water or even just lightly boil it so it softens a bit then blend it into a smoothie. You can add other foods to taste, or add some raw honey when drinking it as a smoothie or juice. It can also be drunk in a tea, again just cutting up the bitter gourd and steeping it and then straining it.”
Over in St Louis, bitter gourd researcher Ray is a fan of the smoothie idea, too.
“This is actually how we prepare it at the lab for each other,” she explains. “I also like to have it mashed with other vegetables or mixed with other vegetables in a soup.”
Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.