When you spot a pile of bitter gourd vegetables at the green grocer’s, suddenly you understand every cucumber joke you have ever heard. After you wipe the smirk off your face and ask about them, the first thing the grocer will tell you is that these are good for people with diabetes but the bitter taste takes some getting used to.
Where is it found? How is it prepared?
You are more likely to find fresh specimens in small, local shops as opposed to the big chain stores, although they are finding their way in sliced and frozen form into the mainstream supermarkets. They may be chopped and made into pickles or served in stews. My favourite method of cooking them is to simply slice them, seeds and all, and toss them in a teflon wok with a spray of Flora, chopped onions and garlic. About 30 seconds before taking them off the heat, adding a splash of superior dark soy sauce creates a steamy flourish; the salty sauce nicely complements the bitter natural taste of the dark green vegetable while the onion and garlic add a slight sweetness. It’s tasty and it works like rocket fuel. Super energising.
t is also used in China and in Okinawa as a substitute for hops in brewing beer. This must explain why I love the taste.
The lay literature
The dark green colour tells you right away that it is packed with Vitamin A and iron. Your local green grocer and popular Internet articles tell you that it contains insulin and at least thirty-two other health-giving goodies. It is reported to contain twice the calcium found in spinach, twice the beta carotene of broccoli and twice the potassium of bananas.
Among the reported health benefits of karela are:
Relieves digestive problems
Boosts the immune system
Lowers blood glucose levels
Promotes weight loss
Good for the skin
Good for the heart
Karela is apparently not good for everybody. There are warnings in the popular literature that it should not be consumed during pregnancy because it may result in miscarriage.
The scientific literature
The scientific name for karela is Momordica charantia. The NCBI PubMed database returns 604 results for karela and 726 for Momordica. A separate search of the terms, ‘karela and pregnancy’ returned 14 results, all from animal studies. A recent meta-analysis of four clinical trials involving a total of 479 participants was reported in August 2012 by a team of scientists in Malaysia. They concluded that there is insufficient evidence to determine one way or another whether Momordica is of any use in Type 2 Diabetes. This does not mean that claims of a health benefit are false. It just means that more randomised controlled trials are needed to provide conclusive evidence.
In vitro studies do support assertions that karela has an anti-ulcer, anti-cancer and anti-helmintic activities at the very least.
Karela, the bitter gourd, is a fascinating vegetable in appearance, flavour and potential health benefits. Anything that green and bitter has got to be good for you!