Momordica charantia, known as bitter melon, bitter gourd, bitter squash or balsam-pear in English, has many other local names. Goya from Okinawan and karela from Sanskrit are also used by English-language speakers.
It is a tropical and subtropical vine of the family Cucurbitaceae, widely grown in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean for its edible fruit, which is extremely bitter. Its many varieties differ substantially in the shape and bitterness of the fruit.
Bitter melon originated on the Indian subcontinent, and was introduced into China in the 14th century.
This herbaceous, tendril-bearing vine grows up to 5 m (16 ft) in length. It bears simple, alternate leaves 4–12 cm (1.6–4.7 in) across, with three to seven deeply separated lobes. Each plant bears separate yellow male and female flowers. In the Northern Hemisphere, flowering occurs during June to July and fruiting during September to November.
The fruit has a distinct warty exterior and an oblong shape. It is hollow in cross-section, with a relatively thin layer of flesh surrounding a central seed cavity filled with large, flat seeds and pith. The fruit is most often eaten green, or as it is beginning to turn yellow. At this stage, the fruit's flesh is crunchy and watery in texture, similar to cucumber, chayote or green bell pepper, but bitter. The skin is tender and edible. Seeds and pith appear white in unripe fruits; they are not intensely bitter and can be removed before cooking.
As the fruit ripens, the flesh (rind) becomes somewhat tougher and more bitter, and many consider it too distasteful to eat. On the other hand, the pith becomes sweet and intensely red; it can be eaten uncooked in this state, and is a popular ingredient in some Southeast Asian salads.
When the fruit is fully ripe, it turns orange and mushy, and splits into segments which curl back dramatically to expose seeds covered in bright red pulp.
Bitter melon comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. The cultivar common to China is 20–30 cm (7.9–11.8 in) long, oblong with bluntly tapering ends and pale green in color, with a gently undulating, warty surface. The bitter melon more typical of India has a narrower shape with pointed ends, and a surface covered with jagged, triangular "teeth" and ridges. It is green to white in color. Between these two extremes are any number of intermediate forms. Some bear miniature fruit of only 6–10 cm (2.4–3.9 in) in length, which may be served individually as stuffed vegetables. These miniature fruit are popular in Bangladesh, India (common name 'Karela'), Pakistan, Nepal and other countries in South Asia. The sub-continent variety is most popular in Bangladesh and India.
|Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)|
|Energy||79 kJ (19 kcal)|
|Dietary fiber||2 g|
|Vitamin A equiv.||
|Percentages are roughly approximated using US recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
Bitter melon is generally consumed cooked in the green or early yellowing stage. The young shoots and leaves of the bitter melon may also be eaten as greens.
Bitter melon is often used in Chinese cooking for its bitter flavor, typically in stir-fries (often with pork and douchi), soups, dim sum, and herbal teas (See Gohyah tea). It has also been used in place of hops as the bittering ingredient in some Chinese and Okinawan beers.
It is very popular throughout India. In North Indian cuisine, it is often served with yogurt on the side to offset the bitterness, used in sabzi or stuffed with spices and then cooked in oil. In Southern India, it is used in the dishes thoran/thuvaran (mixed with grated coconut), mezhukkupuratti (stir fried with spices), theeyal (cooked with roasted coconut) and pachadi (which is considered a medicinal food for diabetics). Other popular recipes include preparations with curry, deep fried with peanuts or other ground nuts, and Pachi Pulusu (కాకరకాయ పచ్చి పులుసు), a soup with fried onions and other spices. In Tamil Nadu, a special preparation called pagarkai pitla (பாகற்காய் பிட்லா), a kind of sour koottu (கூட்டு), variety is very popular. Also popular is kattu pagarkkai (கட்டு பாகற்காய்), a curry that involves stuffing with onions, cooked lentil and grated coconut mix, tied with thread and fried in oil. In Konkan region of Maharashtra, salt is added to finely chopped bitter gourd and then it is squeezed, removing its bitter juice to some extent. After frying this with different spices, less bitter and crispy preparation is served with grated coconut.
In Sri Lanka it is known as Karawila or karavila, and is an ingredient in many different curry dishes (E.g.: Karawila Curry, and Karawila Sambol) which are served mainly with rice in a main meal. Sometimes large grated coconut pieces are added, which is more common in rural areas. Karawila juice is also sometimes served there.
In Pakistan and Bangladesh, bitter melon is often cooked with onions, red chili powder, turmeric powder, salt, coriander powder, and a pinch of cumin seeds. Another dish in Pakistan calls for whole, unpeeled bitter melon to be boiled and then stuffed with cooked minced beef, served with either hot tandoori bread, naan, chappati, or with khichri (a mixture of lentils and rice).
Bitter melon is a significant ingredient in Okinawan cuisine, and is increasingly used in the rest of Japan. It is popularly credited with Okinawan life expectancies being higher than the already long Japanese ones.
In Vietnam, raw bitter melon slices consumed with dried meat floss and bitter melon soup with shrimp are popular dishes. Bitter melons stuffed with ground pork are served as a popular summer soup in the south. It is also used as the main ingredient of "stewed bitter melon". This dish is usually cooked for the Tết holiday, where its "bitter" name is taken as a reminder of the poor living conditions experienced in the past.
In Thailand, the Chinese variety of green bitter melon is prepared stuffed with minced pork and garlic, in a clear broth. It is also served sliced, stir fried with garlic and fish sauce until just tender.
In the Philippines, bitter melon may be stir-fried with ground beef and oyster sauce, or with eggs and diced tomato. The dish pinakbet, popular in the Ilocos region of Luzon, consists mainly of bitter melons, eggplant, okra, string beans, tomatoes, lima beans, and other various regional vegetables altogether stewed with a little bagoong-based stock.
In northern India and Nepal, bitter melon is prepared as a fresh pickle called achar. For this, the vegetable is cut into cubes or slices and sautéed covered in oil and a sprinkle of water. When it is softened and reduced, it is minced in a mortar with a few cloves of garlic, salt and a red or green pepper. It is also sautéed to golden-brown, stuffed, or as a curry on its own or with potatoes.
In some English texts, the plant or the fruit may be called by its local names. In South Asia, it is known as karela (करेला/کریلا) in Hindi- and Urdu-speaking areas, karle (कारले) in Marathi, kakarakaya (కాకరకాయ) in Telugu, karavila (කරවිල) in Sinhala, karela (કારેલા) in Gujarati, kalara (କଲରା) in Oriya, hāgalakāyi (ಹಾಗಲಕಾಯಿ) in Kannada, paavayka (പാവയ്ക്ക) in Malayalam, paagarkaai (பாகற்காய்) in Tamil, tite karela (तीते करेला) in Nepali, korola (করলা|করলা) in Bengali, kerela in Assamese,changkha in Mizo and faaga in the Maldives.
In Latin America it is known as caraille or carilley in Trinidad and Tobago, carilla or karela in Guyana, asorosi or assorosie in Haiti, sopropo in Suriname and the Dominican Republic, balsamino in Panama and some parts of Central America, cerasee or cerasse in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean and parts of South America. It is also known by the Okinawan and Japanese names in some regions of South America. In most of Portuguese and Spanish-speaking areas of South America, however, it is known as melão de São Caetano.
Elsewhere, it is known as kudhreth narhy or kudret narı in Turkey.
Traditional medicinal uses
Bitter melon has been used in various Asian and African herbal medicine systems for a long time. In Turkey, it has been used as a folk remedy for a variety of ailments, particularly stomach complaints. In traditional medicine of India different parts of the plant are used to relieve diabetes, as a stomachic, laxative, antibilious, emetic, anthelmintic agent, for the treatment of cough, respiratory diseases, skin diseases, wounds, ulcer, gout, and rheumatism.
Momordica charantia has a number of purported uses including cancer prevention, treatment of diabetes, fever, HIV and AIDS, and infections. While it has shown some potential clinical activity in laboratory experiments, "further studies are required to recommend its use".
For fever reduction and relief of menstrual problems, there is no scientific research to back these claims. For cancer prevention, HIV and AIDS, and treatment of infections, there is preliminary laboratory research, but no clinical studies in humans showing a benefit.
With regard to the use of Momordica charantia for diabetes, several animal studies and small-scale human studies have demonstrated a hypoglycemic effect of concentrated bitter melon extracts. In addition, a 2014 review shows evidence that Momordica charantia, when consumed in raw or juice form, can be efficacious in lowering blood glucose levels. However, multiple reviews have found that Momordica charantia does not significantly decrease fasting blood glucose levels or A1c, indicators of blood glucose control, when taken in capsule or tablet form. Momordica charantia may be beneficial in diabetes, however the effects seem to depend on how it is consumed. More studies need to be performed in order to verify this effect. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center concludes that bitter melon "cannot be recommended as a replacement therapy for insulin or hypoglycemic drugs".
Bitter melon is contraindicated in pregnant women because it can induce bleeding, contractions, and miscarriage.
Dishes and other uses
An Indonesian-style bitter gourd dish, cooked with sambal, onion, and red bird's-eye chili peppers
Filipino ampalaya con carne with egg, La Familia of Baliuag, Bulacan
Okinawan style goya chanpuru (ゴーヤーチャンプルー), a stir-fried dish
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- Bitter Melon Monograph by Harvard Medical School and Natural Standard Research Collaboration
- Detailed botanical description
- "An Acquired Taste." Article about bittermelon in Hana Hou! Vol. 10, No. 1 (February/March 2007).
- Bitter Melon Extract Decreased Breast Cancer Cell Growth
- Antidiabetic effects of Momordica charantia (bitter melon) and its medicinal potency
- Anthelmintic activity of ethanolic and aqueous extracts of fruits peels of Momordica charantia (curcubitaceae)
- Hepatoprotective Potentials of M Momordica charantia