Bitter Gourd (Momordica Charantia) is a wonder vegetable, belonging to the Cucurbitaceae or cucumber family, suitable for cultivation in the tropical and sub-tropical regions. It is low in calories, high in nutrients and water content. Related to pumpkins, gourd, cucumbers, squashes, and melons; it acts as a body coolant in summer. The vegetable tastes bitter due to the presence of the compound Momorcidin. Bitter Gourd is a popular vegetable in the Asian countries and in other parts of world. It is consumed periodically as a side dish. Both the fruits and leaves are used in the traditional cuisine.
The mild bitter taste of the vegetable is pleasant to the taste buds and therefore, liked by many. This vegetable is a food of choice for the health conscious individuals, because of its medicinal values. For long, Bitter Gourd has been used as a folk medicine and in Ayurvededic tradition; to prevent and treat a number of body imbalances and diseases.
The Bitter Gourd plant is easy to grow and is a preferred creeper plant for the kitchen garden in India. As usual, the local/traditional varieties of the plant are famous for yield of tasty Bitter Gourds, though the sizes are small in comparison to the hybrid varieties. Of late, Bitter Gourd has become an all the rage vegetable, being affordable and for its curative properties. It is good that now a day the vegetable farmers and consumers in the country have taken the humble vegetable quite seriously. It is a remunerative cash crop with constantly high demand in the market, round the year.
In the tropical and sub-tropical regions, in areas with a temperature range of 28 to 35 degrees Celsius, loamy and well drained soil, Bitter Gourd can be cultivated successfully as a cash crop. In continuous pits having a distance of a minimum of 45 centimeters, 4 to 5 seeds are planted in each pit, after soaking the seeds in water or curd for about 24 hours. This is done because, the Bitter Gourd seeds have hard exterior and therefore, when planted without softening the outer hard layer, the germination process gets delayed or may result in some failures in propagation. Though, this is a recommended technique to speed up the process, many farmers plant the hard seeds with its natural dormancy, when rapid germination is not the main issue.
Before the mature seeds are planted in the pits, completely decomposed organic farm yard manure is added and mixed thoroughly to the loose soil. After germination and some growth of the plantlets, only two healthy seedlings are retained by removing the other 2 or 3 saplings. The Bitter Gourd is a creeper and therefore, after about 21 days, vertical supports (it can be grown on ground also) are provided to the new plants by erecting few uneven, thin, split bamboo poles or tree branches; just near to the climbing plants. For providing support to all the climbing Bitter Gourd vines in the entire plot of the farm or home garden, a unified horizontal canopy with adequate small vacant spaces, using small bamboos or tree branches, are arranged as the thatching. When the plants grow up, they creep all over the top platform. Since, the height of the structure is kept ideally at about 6 to 7 feet from the ground, looking after the trees, taking care, application of organic pesticides, liquid organic fertilizers and collection of the fruit, etc. become extremely convenient. On regular interval, weeding, irrigation and earth work is done on the pits. The soil of the pits should remain moist. Depending upon aridity and dryness of the soil and availability of direct sunlight, the quantum of irrigation is decided. However, drip irrigation is a better option for conservation of water and better production of the crop.
The Bitter Gourds are usually harvested 60 to 75 days after sowing, while the fruits are still tender. For increasing the number of female flowers and therefore, the chance for increase in the over all yield; some farmers apply growth hormones approximately 2 weeks before the flowers are likely to come up. For organic farming of Bitter Gourd, this may not be done to treat the vines with chemical based compounds. At the time of flowering, it pays to further add about 10 kilograms of dried and decomposed farm yard manure or urban compost, to provide the additional nutritional requirements of the plants for bearing healthy fruits and for increasing the sizes of the fast growing Bitter Gourds on them. Harvesting of the tender fruits is done in the early morning or at evening, and then washed in water to clean the impurities, soaked dry and quickly sent to the market for sale.
Though, Bitter Gourd is less favored by the harmful bugs yet, it has its enemies, too. The red pumpkin beetles, stink bugs, aphids, thrips, caterpillars and fruit flies are to be controlled effectively to save the Bitter Gourd creepers at various stages of their growth by means application of organic agents. Most of these problems can be tackled by applying Neem (Azadirachta Indica, family Meliaceae) cake to the soil of the pits at about 20 to 30 days intervals. During the growth stages of the plants, application of Neem solution by sprinkling, at the rate of 5 ml to 1 liter of water can help a lot. The same solution can be repeated over, by increasing concentration of the Neem solution to 10 ml and sprayed on the flowering plants to prevent any damage caused by the invading bugs. Neem solutions are natural and harmless to human beings and therefore, it can safely be used on the plant or fruits; as and when required. It is better to treat the Bitter Gourd plants with the Neem solutions in evening only, when the temperature is cool.
The humble Bitter Gourd is said to lower the blood sugar level by enhancing the glucose uptake by the body cells and aids in release and the positive effects of insulin. In the Ayurveda system of medicine, it is prescribed to rejuvenate the liver, cleanse and correct the disorders of blood. Its use may facilitate cure for eczema, psoriasis, and some types of skin infections. As a high fiber diet, it can prove beneficial in constipation and a good stimulant for the digestive system in general. Being high in beta carotene, consumption of Bitter Gourd can help the eyes remain healthy and promote clear vision. It is also believed that the fruit can boost the immune system and help in fighting some of the common infections. For the weight watchers, the good news is, consumption of Bitter Gourd may aid them in shedding some extra flab in a natural way.
Caution: Bitter gourd is a vegetable having high and critical medicinal value and hence, its excess use should be avoided as a matter of precaution. Pregnant women, children, people with hypoglycemia, or persons taking medicines for controlling diabetes should not take Bitter Gourd, as this may prove detrimental to their health conditions. Under no circumstance, its juice is to be taken in excess of the prescribed dose by the physician, as this may result in unwanted fall in sugar level or cause stomach distress/diarrhea. Toxicity arising due to its wrong or excess use may include symptoms like, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, excess salivation secretion, stomach pain/discomfort, muscular weakness, facial redness or vision impairment, etc. A qualified medical doctor has to be consulted immediately for treatment under any such circumstances after consuming Bitter Gourd as food or tonic. By parboiling and draining out the released water or by soaking in salt water for more than 10 minutes, it is thought to lower the toxicity and bitterness of the vegetable to some extent. Further, since the seeds and pith contain high amount of alkaloid, before cooking; it is prudent to throw away the same, to reduce/eliminate its adverse impact on the body.
As a delicious vegetable, it is better to take Bitter Gourd up to one or two servings, per week at most, in low to modest amount only; but not regularly or frequently. Always consult a registered allopathic or Ayurvedic medical practitioner, qualified to advise you on the proper use and right dose of Bitter Gourd as a medicine (or even food) to treat any of the ailments you are having or even for using it as a health tonic. Never self-medicate, or experiment with your body, as this might be extremely harmful for your health.
TRADITIONAL BITTER GOURD Recipe (ODISHA, INDIA)
Bitter Gourd Fry or Kalaraa Bhajaa
After washing thoroughly in water, cut few tender and green Bitter Gourds as thin round pieces (or other types of pieces, as you would like) and few Potatoes with skin intact, as slightly thick long pieces or round shaped. Finely chop one Onion into small pieces and two other Onions into large ones. For this type of fry, the quantity of Bitter Gourd should be more than the Potato.
Heat cooking oil (preferably mustard oil) in a deep frying pan in low to semi-medium heat till it is completely hot. Put half a teaspoonful of whole dry Mustard seeds to the oil, along with one or two pieces of dry Chilies to the hot oil and wait for a while and let the mustard seeds to crack completely. Thereafter, add the finely chopped portion of the Onion to the oil and stir in intervals, till it becomes reddish-golden brown.
Next, put the rinsed Potatoes to the hot oil and fried Onion and on top of it, spread the finely cut pieces of Bitter Gourds. Sprinkle the required amount of salt and turmeric powder (slightly more than in a curry) evenly over the Bitter Gourds, and also add little amount of water for boil-frying with steaming vapors. Cover the cooking pot and stir from time to time, by adding little amount of water just to keep it wet enough, till the Bitter Gourds and Potatoes are half-boiled and fried. Now, it is time to add the large pieces of Onions and discontinue the addition of any more water. Keep the metal cover over the frying pan till, the large Onion pieces change color, being half-cooked in hot oil and water vapor. At this time, if preferred small cut pieces of green chilies can be added to make the fry hot, as per taste.
After sometimes, take out the cover of the pan and allow the vapor to escape slowly in slow heat. When the Bitter Gourds, potatoes and large Onions appear crisp and almost dry, the fry is ready for serving with hot cooked plain rice, along with other curries.
Boiled Bitter Gourd-Potato or Kalaraa-Aalu Bhartaa
By using a pressure cooker, boil the whole Bitter Gourds and Potatoes with skin to make them sufficiently supple (without disintegration) after thoroughly cleaning them in water. The proportion of Bitter Gourd and Potato can be decided by one’s choice or preference.
After draining out the water of the pressure cooker, post boiling time, allow the Bitter Gourds and Potatoes to cool down sufficiently in a separate container. If in a hurry, pour cold water over the hot contents to rapidly bring down the temperature and drain out the water several times.
Now, mash up the boiled Bitter Gourds and skinned Potatoes, taking out the seeds or retaining them, yet almost crushed. Without making it becoming a fine paste, mash to the extent that sufficient amount of the boiled Bitter Gourds and Potatoes remain as small lumps in the paste. Add salt and few cut pieces of green Chilies to the coarse paste and mix thoroughly with the help of a spoon. After the addition of green Chilies, do not use your hand on it to avoid coming in contact with the burning impact of the Chilies.
Next, in a small cooking pan put some amount of oil (preferably Mustard oil) and heat it sufficiently in slow to medium heat. Add some dry Mustard seeds and one or two pieces of dry red Chilies to the hot oil and wait till they crack completely. Thereafter, further add sufficient amount of finely chopped Onions to the oil and stir occasionally till the pieces turn reddish-golden brown in color. Transfer and pour these contents carefully over the already massed but coarse paste of Bitter Gourd and Potatoes kept in a separate container previously. Stir and mix everything using a spoon. Add few fresh Coriander leaves, if you like. Now, serve it with hot cooked plain rice as a side item along with other regular curries and fries.
As an alternative way, a few drops of mustard oil (best), cut pieces of green chilies, fresh Coriander leaves and finely chopped pieces of Onion can be directly added and mixed completely to the massed coarse paste of boiled Bitter Gourd and Potato for a raw and earthly taste.