Bitter Melon

Scientific Name:  Momordica charantia

Also Known as: Bitter Melon, Bitter Gourd (and many others--see below)

Native to: Unknown, but cultivated throughout the Tropics, especially Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean

Some Traditional Uses: Diabetes, psoriasis, infections, menstrual cycle regulation, pregnancy prevention, libido enhancement

Current Medicinal Uses and Purposes: Diabetes

Side Effects and Contraindications: Bitter Melon has lowered fertility and caused abortion in lab mice; yet millions of people eat it up to twice a week around the world, including children, pregnant women, and people who want to reproduce.  Still, for these reasons, people interested in having children should use bitter melon with caution.

Areas of Further Research: Effect of fertility in men and women; diabetes; complications of diabetes; alternative source of non-animal insulin

 

Listen to two different Plant Detective radio shows on Bitter Melon:  Part I and Part II

                    

Bitter Melon looks like a cucumber, only it's got a warty, waxy skin. Like cucumbers, it grows on a vine.  The vegetable--the bitterest in the world--is usually pale or dark green or white. People use it as food and medicine around the world, especially in tropical countries.  In some countries, it appears in families' home-cooked meals up to twice a week or more.

Photo by Pankaj Oudhia via Ecoport


In India, It’s Called . . . (Bitter Melon Around the World)

Australia: Balsam Pear
Bahamas: Wild Balsam Pear
China: KuGua, Foo Gua
Germany: Wunder-Balsamampfel
India: Karela, Serimentok, Quisaul-barri, Sushavi, Uchhe
Italy: Balsamini Lunghi
Ivory Coast: Bobobo, Nania nania, Zague zrou     
Japan: Reishi, Nagareishi
Malaysia: Peria Katak, Periya Laut
Netherlands: Springkomkommer
Okinawa: Goya
Panama: Balsamino       
Peru: Balsamina, Papyilla
Philipines (Tagalog): Ampalaya
Philipines (Chavacano): Amargozo
Puerto Rico: Cun de amor, Machete
Senegal: Barbof
Thailand: Mara, Bitter cucumber, Lumbuzi
United States: African cucumber, Maiden’s Blush
West Indies: Carilla, Pomme z’indiens, Kuguazi, Mexicaine, Balsam apple

Bitter Melon Stir-Fry

By Rhonda Parkinson

Serves 4 

1 lb. bitter melon (about 1 1/4 melons)
1 Tbsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp chili pepper flakes
 2 Tbsp oil for stir-frying       
 2 Tbsp soy sauce
 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
 1/2 tsp sugar
 a few drops sesame oil (optional)

Prepare bitter melon: Cut in half lengthwise, remove seeds, and cut diagonally into thin slices. Sprinkle salt over bitter melon slices and drain in colander for 15 minutes. In a small bowl, mash chili pepper flakes with minced garlic.

Heat wok over medium high heat and add 2 tablespoons oil. When the oil is hot, add minced garlic and chili mixture. Stir-fry briefly until aromatic (about 30 seconds).
Add bitter melon. Stir-fry for about 2 minutes, then splash with balsamic vinegar and soy sauce. Stir in sugar. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes more, until bitter melon is browning and beginning to soften. Stir in a few drops sesame oil if desired. Serve hot.

Medicinal Aspects

Scientific studies confirm folk medicine’s long-time use of bitter melon for diabetes, though more research is needed. In studies, bitter melon helped lower blood sugar to normal levels. In particular, water extracts of the vegetable seem to have a hypoglycemic, or, blood-sugar-lowering effect, increasing glucose tolerance. Some people can tolerate bitter melon, known as “plant-insulin” in India, better than bovine insulin. In studies with animals, bitter melon inhibits glucose absorption, increases the secretion of insulin in the pancreas, and helps the liver use glucose.

Research continues on the most effective way of consuming bitter melon for medicinal purposes. The vegetable can be used with seeds or without; strained and made into juice; fried and eaten; soaked and made into a cold-water decoction.   

Researchers have seen promising effects of bitter melon on complications of diabetes as well, though studies are preliminary and mainly in animals so far. Complications on which bitter melon has had good effect include cataracts, diabetic neuropathy, and end-stage renal disease. 

Bitter Melon’s reproductive-system effects are poorly understood. Reportedly it has been used in some cultures to enhance libido and fertility and to regulate menstruation. Yet bitter melon has, in animal studies, also been associated with decreased male fertility and abortion. People who want to conceive should therefore proceed with caution if they want to use or eat bitter melon.

Bitter Melon is very nutritious. It’s rich in iron, with twice the beta carotene of broccoli, twice the calcium of spinach, and twice the potassium of bananas. It contains vitamins C, A, B1 to B3, phosphorus, and dietary fiber.

Many sources erroneously report that bitter melon contains quinine, which causes its notorious bitterness. In fact, other compounds cause the bitterness. The efficacy of traditional use of bitter melon for malaria, if it is related to this purported quinine content, is therefore dubious.

In China, an angry or serious face is sometimes known as a "bitter melon face."

 

Photo by Forest & Kim Starr (USGS)

Traveling with a Bitter Melon

by Ping-Kwan Leung (Hong Kong)
Translated by Martha Cheung

I cooked it at noon,
sliced it, then stir-fried it.
It was delicious, a little bitter, a little sweet
carrying the good wishes you brought with you from another place.
On your way back you had it for company.
It must have gradually turned tender and soft beside you.
How did you carry it?
Did you check it in? Or hand-carry it?
Did it look about curiously in the plane? Did it
cry because of hunger? Did it get airsick?
I said it was raining outside; you said where you were
it was sunny, you were about to set off to my city
so you thought you could bring it with you, carry it
across different climates, different customs and manners.
I believed you when I set eyes on it,
thanks to you I saw its color— so unique.
In what climate and soil did it grow and from what species?
This child from a poor family has grown into a body like jade;
has an endearing character, kind of a soft gentle white,
not dazzling, but glowing as if from within.
I took this white bitter melon with me onto the plane
and arrived at a foreign land, stepped onto foreign soil;
only at Customs did I wonder if anyone had asked you:
why isn't it green like most bitter melons?
As they examined its dubious passport, ready to stir up trouble
the innocent newcomer waited patiently, a heavy past on his shoulders,
while it remained endearing as ever, neither bitter nor sour,
but gently making allowances for those overworked and disgruntled
weary-eyed grim-faced immigration officials.
I took it with me and went on and on, like my words, further and
further off the mark, trying harder to be inclusive —
because I didn't want to leave out any details, about how a bitter melon
tossed and turned at night, missing its mates,
gasping – was it torn by memories of that
familiar place under the melon-shed, by feelings some may find trivial?
You're so kind towards my clumsy language habits, when I asked:
when will you be back? You just said:
when will you go? One leaving, one
returning. You accepted the tenses I used,
tenses slippery and imprecise. I always eat bitter melons.
I ate one before I boarded the plane.
Why then did it come all that way back to my table?
Did it want to tell me the bitterness of separation? Of frustration?
Did it want to let me know it had a tumor? That its face
was wrinkled with loneliness?
That it kept having bad nights, kept waking in the early hours
and with open eyes waited for the arrival of dawn? In the rippling
silence, was it telling me it was illness that made it bitter,
or its inability to make whole the fragments of history?
Or was it the bitterness of being misunderstood by strangers,
of being misplaced in a hostile world?
It still looked so translucent, like white-jade,
so soothing the thought of savoring it eased one's nerves.
I was saying what everyone should say,
expressing amidst lucid phrases what I wanted to say
in confused sentences. Alone, I set the table,
the ocean between us; how I yearned to be with you
and share with you the refreshing melon.
There are so many things that do not live up to expectations.
The human world has its imperfections.
The bitter melon understands.

Bitter Melon References for The Plant Detective Radio Show

Abascal K, and E. Yarnell. “Using Bitter Melon to Treat Diabetes.” Alternative and Complementary Therapies 2005; 11 (4):179_84.

Bitter Melon Council (website). http://www.bittermelon.org/Nutritional_Information.htm, 9/5/06. 

Wikipedia (website). http//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitter_melon, 9/5/06.

Yarnell, E. E-mail communications, Aug. 22-Sept. 13, 2006.