Ampalaya – Bittermelon, Balsam Pear, Foo Gua, Goya
So named because of its’ bitter taste, but very well regarded as a very nutritious vegetable by Asians. Leaves and fruits alike are edible and used by Filipinos for their everyday cooking. Leaves are used for soups and the fruits are used for stir fries like the Chinese recipe “Beef with Bittermelon” and the Filipino recipe called the Pinakbet or Bulanglang. Pinakbet is pretty much the Philippine version of the French Ratatouile. All the vegetables are the same (except for the addition of the bitter melon) down to the anchovies we call “bagoong”. Bagoong is actually the term used for food preserved in sea salt in big clay jars much like what the Italians used for wine or olives or whatever they are preserving except we preserve anchovies and other type of small fish. Shrimp “bagoong” is just like the shrimp paste used in Thai or Indonesian recipes called “blachan”.
The plant itself grows into a vine so it need to be planted along the trellis or a fence. It prefers moist and well-drained soil. The leaves are dark green with deep indentations and the flowers are bright yellow in color. The vines are so vigorous so it needs some pruning once in a while which is not a problem because you can use the leaves for cooking or give it away to your friends who do not have a garden.
The shape of the fruit is elongated like a cucumber but has wart-covered skin. The fruit is green when young and turns yellow when mature. The plant can be started from the seeds of the mature pods. The red, outer covering of the seeds called aril, needs to be removed then dried to be ready to plant next season or whenever you are ready to plant again on another site, maybe.
Old folks dry the leaves to make tea as a preventative measure for diabetes and for over-all health much like the Europeans use “bitters” as an after-dinner drink for good digestion. We use the leaves and tender shoots with mung beans, like split-pea soup. I remember my Mom using the leaves with wild mushrooms to make soup. The local Hawaiians use the leaves to make Chicken soup which they call Chicken Paraya.
I am glad I was introduced to this vegetable at an early age because it is an acquired taste and takes some getting used to. I would say that the old folks know better because new research today confirms that bittermelon contains calcium, iron, magnesium, Vitamin C and A and other micro-nutrients that are valuable to one’s health.