The bitter melon plant is a vine that grows only in winter-free countries. It is very popular in China, India, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, and is now getting much attention in the West for its nutritional and therapeutic uses. The bitter melon is called many other names such as bitter gourd, balsam pear, ampalaya or wild cucumber.
Bitter melon plants have a lot to offer. The fruit, leaves and seeds are edible and very nutritious. The star of the show, of course, is the bitter melon fruit itself. It is a warty, elongated green gourd that is best eaten when unripe. It is the bitterest fruit in the world. What it lacks in appearance and taste it makes up in nutrients.
For years and in many Asian countries, it has been traditionally used as a cure for diabetes mellitus and many other diseases. According to Dr. Jiming Ye of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, “Practitioners of Chinese medicine have used (bitter melon fruit) for hundreds of years to good effect.” It contains hypoglycemic compound or plant insulin, charantin, insulin-like peptides, and alkaloids that lower the body’s blood sugar level.
Dr. Ye and a team of other scientists explained that bitter melon contents activate certain enzymes in the human body that help in transporting glucose into body tissues. Patients of Type 2 diabetes are unable to do this because they don’t produce enough insulin in their bodies. The bitter melon fruit can help remedy that problem.
Bitter melon is also believed to be very helpful against hypertension, cholera, dyspepsia, constipation, indigestion, fungal infections, liver problems, jaundice, malaria, chickenpox, measles, herpes simplex, dysentery, fever, painful menstruation, burns, scabies, skin problems, and eye problems. Some scientists believe it can cure breast cancer and inhibit HIV infection, although this requires more research.
A single melon is rich in folate, beta carotene, calcium, carbohydrates, copper, dietary fiber, iron, magnesium, manganese, Pantothenic Acid, phosphorus, potassium, protein, selenium, sodium, Vitamins A, B, C, E, K, and zinc.
The melons may be eaten raw or cooked. Asians love it when it is most bitter. The Chinese, in particular, believe that the more bitter the vegetable, the more nutritious it is.
Inside the elongated green fruit are white bitter melon seeds. They are also edible and medicinal but typically not many people eat them because of the intensely bitter taste. Some say they can cause nausea and diarrhea to those who are not used to eating them. A bitter melon seed turns red and even bitterer when ripe, which is why many are cautioned against eating the seeds.
The bitter melon leaf is also edible and nutritional. The leaves and even shoots are eaten as greens or herb garnish. For diabetic patients, bitter melon leaves are a good substitute for spinach. In some Southeast Asian countries, bitter melon leaves are mixed with onions and tomatoes for a bitter, green vegetable salad.
Some Westerners have tried culturing bitter melons in their gardens. With proper care in a greenhouse, this is possible. In most cases, bitter melon plant may be bought from Asian farmer’s markets or online.
Author’s note: We found out about Kefir recently, it should be something that you might want to look into if you are into yogurt and fermenting food.