Bitter is Better?

by baltringer

Bitter-melon, bitter-apple, bitter-gourd, bitter-squash: substitute the latter, but the descriptor remains the same. As a child, I was always perplexed by my grandparents’ infatuation with this vegetable. They would serve it to my brother and I every time they visited, and we would all sit at the dinner table grimacing, munching, swallowing, grimacing. If you haven’t gotten the hint yet, it’s bitter. Although it’s taste is offensive, it stands the test of time not only in my household, but also across the globe. Bitter melon has been used in Asian and African cuisine for centuries, with its strongest origins in folk medicine. Each geographic region also uses the bitter melon for different medicinal purposes. In Turkey, it has been used to treat stomach ailments, whereas in India it has been used to treat diabetes. It is now becoming popular in the United States due to its property as a nutrient partitioner, which can increase fat loss by preventing the conversion of stored sugars into released glucose. Though all these health benefits make bitter-melon sound like a superfood, the research behind its application in digestive disorders, diabetes, and fat-loss is limited and preliminary. Yet such a food continues to be consumed, and usually through the rawest recipes (cold salads, simple stir-fries). With the availability of so many spices and flavorings, why do all the existing recipes still fail to mask the sharp bitterness of the vegetable? Perhaps the natural taste reminds us of its medicinal value, as though the benefits of this ‘superfood’ are only realized through the purest form of its consumption. Or, perhaps we continue eating bitter-melon because of the cultural constructs surrounding it; not because it is actually good for you, but because grandma told you it was.

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