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Local food guide: Bitter gourd (aka bitter melon or bitter squash)

Beate Baldry forages for exciting Asian ingredients that are readily available in Singapore, to discover their traditional uses and ways to incorporate them into Western home cooking.

This month’s ingredient: Bitter gourd
(aliases: bitter melon, bitter squash)

 

What it is
Bitter gourd grows off a vine as a pale green, roughly oblong, knobbly and wrinkly fruit. Its size, colour, texture and degree of bitterness differ depending on the variety and the region in which it grows. It’s found in South America, Asia, parts of Africa and the Caribbean.

The flavour
Bitter gourd is a fruit, but is treated more like a vegetable in cooking. It has a crunchy and watery texture and can be extremely bitter. It’s an acquired taste; some find it unpalatable. But don’t be put off! It is extremely good for you, and there are ways to tone down the bitterness (see one in our box of tips).

Where to find it
In the vegetable section of most supermarkets. There are often two types: a large, tubular version sold loose; and a much smaller type with a bumpier, more wrinkled exterior, generally sold in packs of three.

Uses

  • In Southeast Asia, Japan and China, bitter gourd is often used in stir-fries, or cooked simply with egg – scrambled or in an omelette, sometimes with fresh or dried shrimp. It is also used in salads – especially, in Taiwan, Thailand and Japan.
  • Bitter gourd can be stuffed with pork (in China) or coconut, jaggery and ground nuts (in India), and then steamed or fried.
  • It is used in Indian curries, or made into an achar (or pickle) to be served as a side dish.

Health benefits

  • Bitter gourd is commercially available as tea (from the fruit or leaves), juice, extracts and pills.
  • Some clinical trials show bitter gourd having anti-diabetic properties that can lower blood glucose levels.
  • It is also used in traditional medicine to help with colic, fever, burns, chronic cough, painful menstruation and skin conditions.
  • Research has shown that bitter gourd can kill breast cancer cells and prevent their growth. 
  • Bitter gourd features prominently in Okinawan cuisine, and is thought to contribute to Okinawan longevity.

Thai bitter gourd and prawn salad 

Cook it at home
Preparation tips:

  • Wash the skin, which is edible, then slice open the bitter gourd and remove the seeds, hollowing out the centre.  Slice into slivers and keep them in cold water to retain their crispness before cooking.
  • To remove some of the bitter taste, sprinkle the dry bitter gourd slices with salt and leave for a while. This will extract some of the bitter juices, and you can squeeze out any excess juice. 

Thai bitter gourd and prawn salad (pictured above)
Serves two as a side dish

Ingredients

  • 10 medium shrimps, cleaned and shelled
  • 1 bitter gourd
  • a handful of cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 2 chillies, finely chopped
  • 2 shallots, sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, pounded
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2-3 tablespoons lime juice

Directions

  1. Prepare the dressing by mixing the garlic, chilli, shallot, fish sauce, lime juice and sugar together.
  2. Blanch the prawns in boiling water until cooked.
  3. Wash, prepare and slice the bitter gourd. Blanch in a pot of boiling water and drain.
  4. In a serving bowl, mix the prawns, bitter gourd slices, tomatoes and dressing so everything is evenly coated. Serve with steamed jasmine rice

Try it in town!
Sabai Fine Thai does a version of this salad with bitter gourd, prawns, chicken, mint leaves, chilli and lime. (Yam Mara: $17.50.) 70 Collyer Quay, #01-02 Customs House.

 

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