Bitter gourd (Momordica charantia)

Bitter gourd (Momordica charantia) is a tropical and subtropical vine in the family Cucurbitaceae, originated in South East Asia. It is also known as Bitter melon or Balsam pear, and is widely grown for its edible fruit in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Bitter gourd is among the most bitter of all fruits. Depending upon the cultivar type, bitter gourds are light to dark-green in color and have oblong or oval shaped with pointed tip at the blossom end.

Bitter gourd is a fast growing, herbaceous, tendrill-bearing plant, growing up to 5 meters. The leaves are alternate, simple, 4-12 cm across, with 3-7 deeply palmated lobes. There are separate male and female yellow flowers in each plant. The fruit is warty and oblong-shaped, with a thin layer of flesh surrounding a central seed cavity. The seed cavity is filled with large, flat seeds with piths. The fruit is usually harvested when it is still green. Bitter gourd has a crunchy and juicy texture, similar to cucumber, but very bitter in taste. The seeds are white and small in unripe fruits. Ripe fruit turns orange and mushy, and splits into segments which curl back, revealing the seeds which are covered in bright red pulps. Ripe fruits can be excessively bitter.

The China phenotype variety of bitter gourd is 20-30 cm long, pale-green, oblong-shaped with blunt tapering ends, and a gently undulating, warty surface.

The India bitter gourd has narrower shape and pointed ends, with jagged, triangular points and ridges. It is green to white in color.

Miniature gourd of 6-10 cm in length, oval and has a darker green color, can be served individually as stuffed vegetables, and is very popular in India and South East Asia.

Bitter gourd is generally consumed cooked when it is still green or in early stage of yellowing. It may contain alkaloid substances like quinine and morodicine, resins and saponic glycosides which may be intolerable by some people. The bitterness and toxidity may be reduced by parboiling or soaking in salt water for up to ten minutes.

Bitter gourd is often used in Chinese cooking, typically in stir-fries, soups and as tea. In Northern India, bitter gourd is prepared with potatoes and served with yogurt on the side to offset the bitterness. In Nepal, bitter gourd is prepared as a pickle known as 'achar'. The gourd is cut into cubes or slices, and sauteed covered in oil and a sprinkle of water. While in Trinidad and Tobago, the bitter gourd is usually sauteed with onion, garlic and Scotch bonnet pepper, until almost crisp.

Bitter gourd is low in calories, but high in vitamins A, B1, B2, C, magnesium, manganese, potassium, folic acid, phosphorus, iron, and has high dietary fiber. It has excellent medicinal virtues, and is used in native medicines of Asia and Africa. It contains charantin, a 'plant insulin', reputed to be responsible for the hypoglycaemic properties which is highly beneficial in lowering the blood and urine sugar level in diabetic. Bitter gourd is one of the best vegetable-fruit that helps improve toxemia and diabetic conditions. It also offers medicinal properties for ailments like blood disorders, cholera, eye problems, hangover, piles, psoriasis, and respiratory disorders. Bitter gourd helps purify blood tissue, enhances digestion, and stimulates the liver.

Bitter gourd is a long season, high humidity, and warm climate vine plant and requires trellis to support the climbing vine. It is commonly found in Asian countries and South America. Excessive consumption may cause mild abdominal pain or diarrhea. Pregnant women should avoid taking too much bitter gourd as it may stimulate the uterus that may lead to preterm labor.

Bitter gourd (Momordica charantia)Bitter gourd (Momordica charantia)
Author: Tenbon (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported)

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