The History of Ampalaya

By Veronica Romualdez

Ampalaya is Filipino for bitter melon, or bitter gourd or bitter cucumber. Its scientific name is Momordia charantia. It is also found in China, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and India. It is a greenish, oblong-shaped fruit that grows on vines to about 20 centimeters long, with tapering ends. Sour in taste, it has many culinary and medicinal uses in Asia and parts of South America and the Carribean. Its origin is unknown.

The Filipino Ampalaya

Filipino centenarians will remember being forced as children to eat ampalaya sautéed with egg. They will also remember seeing “beef ampalaya” on the menus of old and new Chinese restaurants, and the bitter taste in the ancient Ilocano mixed-vegetable dish called “pinakbet.” All of these dishes indicate that ampalaya in the Philippines is at least a century old, even as the first Philippine-documented information on this fruit as having health benefits is only in the 1940s.

History

While its origin is unknown, the many and widespread culinary and medicinal uses of ampalaya among so many countries leads one to believe that ampalaya and its uses have existed for far more centuries than one. These cuisines were probably part of the diet of ancient cultures of many tropical countries where these fruits have probably been growing for centuries. Even if many of ampalaya’s medicinal values have not been proven scientifically, such usage has probably been going on for centuries.

Culinary Uses of Ampalaya

Apart from Filipino, ampalaya is in many other Asian cuisines. In China, it is used for stir-fried dishes, soups and in tea. In Indonesia, it is stir-fried with coconut milk. In Vietnam, they have bitter melon soup. In India and Nepal, it is curried or stuffed with spices before frying in oil. In Pakistan, ampalaya is fried with onions. While not in many Japanese menus, Okinawans eat a lot of it, which supposedly accounts for their longer life spans.

Supplementary Diet Vs. Diabetes

While ampalaya has long been an Asian traditional medicine, medicinal value has been concentrated on its use against diabetes. An Indian study proves ampalaya increases sensitivity to insulin, and in 2007, the Philippine Health Department said ampalaya can lower blood-sugar levels. Both these countries produce ampalaya capsules and export them to many countries, including the United States. However, it still has to be proven scientifically to cure diabetes, has no standard dosage and can cause allergies.

Other Medicinal Uses and Myths

Scientific studies have also been conducted on ampalaya as a possible cure for cancer and HIV. It has been found to be helpful in treating malaria and is known, like most bitter food, to stimulate digestion and relieve constipation. Its leaves are also used as medicine for wounds, for coughs, to combat sterility in women, as a paraticide and antipyretic. However, as a cure for some of these and a few others (such as glaucoma, infertility and herpes), the use of ampalaya stands unproven.

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