Bitter Melon (you may know it as Bitter Gourd, Balsam Pear or Karela) was like brussel sprouts for me when I was younger – the promise was it could do everything, except taste good.
Lucky for me though my parents were persistent, and with my adult sense of taste I’ve grown to enjoy the unique taste of this fruit as well as the many health benefits it can bring.
What is Bitter Melon?
Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia ) is a gourd plant commonly grown in South East Asia, India, East Africa and South America.
It is a light green colour when ripe and has an elongated shape similar to a large cucumber. Its distinctive ridged skin makes it easily to identify next to other melons and gourds, as does its unique bitter flavour.
Despite its odd appearance and taste, bitter melon has been a popular addition to Asian cooking for centuries. It is surprisingly versatile to cook with, often mixed with heavy curries and stir fries to lift and cut through the dense flavour of the sauce. Its medicinal properties are commonly praised through out Asia – many believe it can assist digestion, stabilize diabetes and can clear even the most stubborn acne.
What are the health benefits of Karela / Bitter Melon?
1. Stabilizing blood sugar levels (Diabetes)
Drinking Kerala (bitter melon) juice is very popular in parts of India, due to the traditional belief in its ability to prevent cancer and manage diabetes.
Scientifically, Bitter melon does notably contain phyto-nutrient, polypeptide-P, which is thought to be able to work the same way as insulin by reducing blood sugar levels.
Bitter melon also carries a hypoglycemic agent called charantin. Charantin is believed to increase glucose uptake and glycogen synthesis inside the cells of liver, muscle and adipose tissue. Together, these compounds may be responsible for blood sugar levels reduction in the treatment of type-2 diabetes, but the results are not yet conclusive.
2. Low in Calories
Bitter melon is quite low in calories, carrying just 17 calories per 100 g. But it packs a punch in a small package, carrying high levels of other nutrients and vitamins.
3. High in Folates
Carrying about 72 µg/100g (18% of RDA), fresh Bitter Melon pods are an excellent source of folates.
4. High in Vitamin C
Bitter Melon is an amazing source of vitamin-C. 100g of Raw Bitter Melon contains 89 mg of Vitamin C, which is a staggering 119% of the recommended daily Intake (the cooked version contains approx. 50% of RDI). Vitamin-C is one of nature’s most powerful anti-oxidants, fighting off free radicals and defending your body during flu season.
Great for other vitamins too:
Bitter melon is also a moderate source of B-complex vitamins such as niacin (vitamin B-3), pantothenic acid (vitamin B-5), pyridoxine (vitamin B-6) and minerals such as iron, zinc, potassium, manganese and magnesium.
5.High in Flavonoids
Bitter Melon is a great source of beneficial flavonoids such as ß-carotene, a-carotene, lutein, and zea-xanthin. It also contains a good amount of vitamin-A. Flavonoids have a good reputation for fighting free radicals and assisting in anti- aging and maintaining healthy skin.
What are the potential side effects of Bitter Melon?
It is important to note that as with all foods (particularly new ones) , if you have any chronic conditions or are taking medication, consult your physician first before going on a big bitter melon kick, in case the combination results in any unpleasant side effects.
According to WebMD – Bitter Melon should not be fed to children ( especially the seeds as these are toxic) and pregnant women risk menstrual bleeding if they consume this fruit as well.
If you are diabetic and are on medication, please consult with your medical professional before taking bitter melon long term. As it can potentially lower your blood sugar levels, you should consider how this will affect your medication and your dosage over the long term.
Some people who have what is called G6PD deficiency, should also avoid Bitter Melon as they are at risk of developing “Favism”, which is a condition with some symptoms similar to Anemia.
Bitter Melon and Karela Recipes
1. Karela Juice
Karela juice is popular amongst the diabetic community, as it is one of the few fruit juices with a low sugar content.
2. Black Bean Pork with Bitter Melon
Chinese Salted black beans work beautifully with Bitter Melon, as they neutralize the strong taste of the melon. The lean beef soaks in the flavour of both, making for a very tasty dish. Similar to a curry, the flavour of this dish increases with time as the sauce is absorbed into the tender meat and vegetables.
3. Karela Chips
Looking for a healthier snack? This Karela Chip recipe may help you satisfy your cravings. Loaded with chilli, Turmeric and many other yummy Indian spices, this recipe is a winner before dinner.
4. Stuffed Bitter Melon Soup
Soups are an easy and delicious way to serve tougher ingredients, and this recipe is no exception. The bitter melon is given plenty of time to soak up the water to become beautiful and tender. This is a lovely light way to serve a vegetable with such a powerful flavour.
I hope that I have at least inspired you to give this ugly little plant a try. Bitter Melon may not be something you can eat for breakfast, lunch and tea but with such a high level of vitamins, a little bit goes a long way.