Growing up, I seemed to be one of those kids who couldn’t eat their bitter veggies. No matter the myriad ways in which my mother would prepare this traditional Chinese green, I’d ignore it completely at the table. Like I was some snob kid who had been spoilt by too much good food, to eat veggies that I thought didn’t even taste decent.
Now, my mother was known for her good cooking. My friends from school always loved coming over for after-school meals at the slightest invitation. They knew that doing study or homework together usually meant an afternoon of meals, snacks and treats till way past afternoon tea. So everything was always gobbled up with much gusto and appreciation – our table manners were somewhat lacking at an age which still hadn’t two digits in it.
So you would think that 8 or 9-year olds were behaving normally if they avoided eating green food. But not the case with my unrelated Brady bunch of buddies – they lapped it all up, bitter veggies included. I was inevitably the butt of their teases and jokes. ‘Bitter gourd’s not bitter at all!’, they’d mumble in between mouths and cheeks so stuffed with food, you’d think they had mumps.
Still, I didn’t budge. My mother often prepared gourd slices stuffed with delicious minced fish or pork fillings, in rich gravy or sauce. She knew just how much I love lapping up gravy. I’d eat the fillings, and only the fillings, leaving behind a trail of ‘naked’ gourd slices in the dish. She also often stewed it in a delicious soup broth with pork meat balls. I ate meat balls aplenty, and filled my belly full with soup. I didn’t move an inch on the gourd.
I only realised decades later, as a much wiser and health-conscious adult enlightening herself with information and knowledge on food and nutrition, just how beneficial the bitter gourd truly is. And I know my mother would be proud to know that I am now such a huge fan of this humble Asian vegetable, so much so that it now makes regular appearances at my family’s table.
So why is bitter gourd so popular?
There’s no doubt that the bitter gourd is highly nutritious. It contains lots of vitamins, such as B1, B2, B3 and C. It is also an abundant source of minerals such as magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, manganese, as well as folic acid.
Bitter gourd contributes dietary fibre into our diet. It also contains a plant-based insulin known to lower blood sugar levels, as well as health-benefiting flavanoids such as ß-carotene, α-carotene, lutein, and zea-xanthin.
It also stimulates easy digestion and peristalsis of food through the bowel, thus relieving indigestion and constipation problems.
Cooking with Bitter Gourd
With hues of green ranging from dark emerald to light apple, bitter gourds vary in size from small to large, are oval or oblong shaped, and have characteristic ‘teeth’ or ridges. And they are just as varied in their bitterness.
For the most part, Chinese cooking uses the larger, light green, oblong shaped bitter gourd. These are generally less bitter (and that bitterness can be considerably reduced – read the recipe below), and ideal for stir-fries. When choosing, try to get the light green, oblong variety with very wide or ‘fat’ pronounced ridges.
One of the best ways to enjoy bitter gourd is to stir-fry it with eggs. In this recipe, which is a typical Cantonese-style preparation, the eggs are lightly scrambled till just almost cooked. The heat is then turned off so that the scrambled eggs stay a little moist and mushy.