Sunday, October 28, 2012

Harvest Ingredient 18: Ampalaya/Bitter Melon

This is another of those Asian "dealies" that has made it into New World cuisine,  by way of Pacific isles.  It is mostly consumed in the Caribbean, where it is called variously called caralli, bitter gourd, or more popularly, Corilla.  they have even been adopted the native tea culture of the tribal remnants on Dominica (not read more about this, click here.)  Though they originated thousands of years ago in India, these strange member of the squash and melon family have long since made their way, via China the most of the island nations close to the Asian mainland, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Formosa (Taiwan), New Guinea, and, of course, The Philippines, where it is known by it's indigenous Tagalog name of Ampalaya; it is here this vegetable really makes a splash.  In English speaking areas of the Caribbean, it is sometimes sold as "bitter gourd."

Caribbean Corillas

There are number of sub-types, and given the extremely knobby skin of most Caribbean varieties, it seems that they most likely were brought directly from India, where these types are still the best known.  Smoother skin varieties, also known in some small areas of the Caribbean, are known to have evolved under cultivation in China and spread to places like The Philippines.  Some of these vary a great deal in bitterness, but all varieties are more bitter the darker the skin.  In some places, the suggestion to par-boil it to reduce bitterness is given, this is especially true of the knobby types found in India and the Caribbean:  some people swear by it, others are not so sure.  

Burst ripe fruit

In some places it is grown exclusively to ripen it to a bursting stage.  At this point the bright red flesh around the seeds is very sweet and the pulp can be eaten fresh and raw and often makes it's way into several different types of salad in southeast Asia, including fruit salads.  At this point, the fruit itself is bright yellow to orange and that part of the "melon" is now inedible.  In it's green state, the stage that it is most used in, it must be cooked, or even double cooked (as mentioned above) to render it edible by most standards (there are exceptions!).  

The smooth skin type of "Bitter Melon" aka Ampalaya is the type most typically found in The Philippines.

The plant has been used in a number of different ways medicinally wherever it is found.  In the New World country of Guyana it is used as a vegetable to prevent malaria; and in Colombia and Panama, a tea (also drunk in Dominica, see above) is used to treat malaria.  In the 1960's it was found to have powerful properties that aid people with diabetic conditions.  In The Philippines a recent medical study showed that ingestion of a specific dose of bitter melon supplement was as effective in glucose reduction as some drugs marketed for the same reason.  The fruits contain a compound that increase sensitivity to insulin, thus allowing people with Type 2 Diabetes to utilize insulin in their systems better, in other words, it reduced insulin resistance.   In normal people, this can lead to a brief case of hypoglycemia if too much of the fruit is eaten.  Other more recent research suggests that it may have implications for treating certain types of cancer.  CAUTION:  this should not be eaten by pregnant women!  One of the other uses for this in the Pacific is to induce abortion; for that reason it is a traditional medicine for childbirth.  It has even been used in some places as birth control.

Bitter Melon leaves are eaten as well in The Philippines.
Food uses for it are actually quite wide ranging and varied for such a bitter tasting "vegetable." I'm not to even try to touch on all of them (there are actually that many!), but a few are just too strange not to mention!  One is it's use in beer making in China and in Okinawa in Japan.  In Vietnam it is served raw with pulled dried meat; it is also used in a stewed state there for the Tet holiday, meant to remind people to be thankful for what they have now, i.e.:  they don't have to eat bitter melon everyday!  There is even a soft drink made from these strange things!!  In parts of the Caribbean and northern South America it is cooked with really hot indigenous Scotch Bonnet chiles, onions and garlic in a saute that makes it really crisp.  In other parts of the Caribbean it is cooked and put into a traditional salad, and supposed to be good for digestion. In Guyana, the same saute is used, minus the hot peppers, however the gourds of well boiled first and the saute not crisp.  

A traditional sauteed bitter melon from the Philippines:  a Ginisang Ampalaya

As mentioned above, it is in The Philippines that the "melon" or Ampalaya is used as a vegetable in a variety of different ways.  In addition to the above vegetable saute, it is also sauteed with beef and even tossed up with oyster sauce (showing it's Chinese roots).  As in the Caribbean, it is also put into the salad bowl, in most cases, not raw, but not cooked either; rather it is salted like cucumbers (of which this is a distant relative), squeezed and macerated in citrus juice, before going into the main dish.  As mentioned above, the leaves and tendrils are also eaten the this island chain, usually as a saute or in soups. They can also be scraped free of seeds and stuffed, stewed in garlicky hot sauces, with or without seafood.  It is also pickled and even goes into an iced tea.  Perhaps the greatest of all uses of the ampalaya comes in the regional specialty of Ilocos region of Luzon in the form of pinakbet and vegetable saute that typically sees this married with eggplant, okra, and beans:  lima and/or string (long) beans and tomatoes.  Sometimes with pork, sometimes, without; but always with the indigenous Bagoong (a paste typically made from shrimp).

Small Filipino Bitter Melons

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