What makes ampalaya bitter and why I chose frogs over this super bitter gourd vegetable

Note: Ampalaya is the Tagalog (Philippine language) name for a vegetable commonly called bitter melon or bitter gourd in English.  It is the fruit of a vine grown year-round in the Philippines.


Ampalaya for sale (in front of the eggplants) for sale at a Philippine market

Ampalaya for sale at a Philippine market

Do you like ampalaya?

I mean, like it…and like it so much you’d pick it over any dish available — and ON PURPOSE — not because you are supposed to eat it for its health benefits?

I like to eat vegetables. I’m even fond of vegetables that some people may not favor because of the texture, like okra and eggplants.  Or herbs that some may find to taste “soapy”, like cilantro (also known as coriander and called kulantro in the Philippines).

Ampalaya at Philippine market web

Ampalaya and vegetables for sale at a Philippine market

But as much as I love to eat my veggies, I do draw a strong line when it comes to the super bitter vegetable called ampalaya.

I really, really hate this vegetable, and wonder why people can stand to eat it.

And I am suspicious of people who tell me that they actually like ampalaya.

In fact, I will usually ask again… you know, just to give them a chance to change their answer.

Really?  You really do like it?  I always expect them to say “No, not really”.

Granted, I’ve only asked my Filipino relatives or Filipino friends.  But most of the time, for the 2nd or 3rd time I ask, they will say “Yes, I do, I really do!”

And then they typically add how healthy this vegetable is, and how it’s good for you.

Ampalaya is a common vegetable in the Philippines, and is one of the vegetables featured in a popular native vegetable dish called “pinakbet”.

Pinakbet ingredients

Some ingredients of the Filipino dish called pinakbet via Wikipedia commons and Thepacificconoisseur

Along with ampalaya, the vegetables included in pinakbet are tomatoes, eggplant, string beans, okra, and squash, but it does vary by region.

It is spiced with onions, garlic, ginger and bagoong (a much loved Filipino fermented seafood product).

Pinakbet

Authentic Bulakan Pinakbet Pinakbet (La Familia of Baliuag) photo by Ramon F Velasquez via Creative Commons

I do eat pinakbet because I love everything else that goes into it… except of course, the ampalaya.

When I have pinakbet, I push the ampalaya to the edge of my plate, but sometimes I still accidentally bite into a slice.  And then I have to try not to gag while I find a napkin to do a polite manuever while at the table.

The photo of the pinakbet dish above has huge chunks of ampalaya… easier to push aside and avoid!

Type of frog eaten in the Philippines

This is a type of frog that is similar to what is commonly eaten in the Philippines. It is called “palakang bukid” meaning field / or rice field frogs. It is also called the East Asian Bullfrog.

I remember the first time I ate a frog dish in the Philippines.

The reason I remember is because the lunch options — what we call “ulam” or a main dish in the Philippines — and what is served with rice were:

1.  Ampalaya sautéed with eggs, which is another popular way this vegetable is cooked in the Philippines… or

2. Frog legs, sautéed with onions and tomatoes. The frogs were called palakang bukid, and were likely the East Asian Bullfrog.

I must have been around 11 or 12, and up until then, had never eaten frogs. But I was hungry and hated ampalaya so much that I got over the idea of eating a frog very quickly.

Besides, there was a lot of savory sauce covering the froggy legs.  I think I liked it, but haven’t eaten frogs since that ampalaya vs. frog lunch event.

Ampalaya at Farmers Market US

It is easy to find ampalaya in California — this photo is from an a vendor that sells many types of Asian vegetables at the farmers market.

The ampalaya is popular not only in the Philippines, but in neighboring Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and India.

The compounds in his vegetable may well contribute to the amazing longevity of people from Okinawa — another place that loves the bitter melon.

I read an article by Dr. Andrew Weil, the founder and director of The Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine about how bitter vegetables are good for us because:

  • it suppresses appetites
  • it makes the liver have to work hard and produce bile, which is important to our digestive system.

Dr. Weil’s article (Why Bitter is Better) suggest veggies to try to build up our bitter vegetable tolerance… like radicchio, Belgian endive, and broccoli rabe.  He also recommends, you guessed it, ampalaya!

I think I will stick with bitter vegetables I DO like (endives, mustard greens, kales and chard, and the Chinese “gai lan”) because there is no way — at my age, anyway — that I think I will ever learn to like ampalaya.

Ampalaya or bitter melon

Print from plate “Momordica charantia Blanco2.357-original” by Francisco Manuel Blanco (O.S.A.) – Flora de Filipinas via Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

My dislike for a specific vegetable like ampalaya is not unusual.

Many of us know people who cannot stand to eat beets, or brussel sprouts, or cilantro (did you know the famous chef and cooking pioneer Julia Child hated cilantro?)

You may have heard that we have many taste buds or receptors on our tongue to differentiate between, sweet, salty, sour, umami (the savory taste of meat and mushrooms) and bitter-tasting food.

The interesting thing is that while sweet and umami tastes each have one receptor, there are 20 for bitter flavors.

So, why do we have so many bitter taste receptors?

Taste bud graphic via NOVA. Click on the image for more information.

Taste bud graphic via NOVA. Click on the image for more information.

It turns out the bitter receptors helps us to avoid toxic plants.

When we taste bitter flavors, it is a warming that the food may be poisonous.

But some bitter plants are good for humans, and have medicinal properties.

So while the bitter warns us that it may be poisonous (Toxic!  Toxic!  Toxic!) there is also a part of us that wants just a bit of bitter veggies because it can help us.

Even now, and knowing about its health benefits, I cannot get past the ampalaya’s extreme bitter taste.  My reaction to eating ampalaya has always been to spit it out… like, immediately.

Oh yes…right, the vegetable is called “bitter melon” or “bitter gourd” in English.  No guessing about how it will taste like, right?

And as far as why ampalaya bitter, it has to do with alkaloids and other compounds in the plant.  Alkaloids are produced naturally by bacteria, fungi, animals and some plants.

Many plants containing alkaloid have been used by humans since ancient times.  The strange thing is why we like some over others.

The leaves of the ampalaaya are also eaten.

The leaves of the ampalaaya are also eaten (photo from farmers market).

I have no problem whatsoever with other alkaloid containing foods like coffee…and other bitter foods like citrus, or olives.

We each have different thresholds for what tastes bitter, so it could be that those of us who hate ampalaya are super sensitive to veggies that have a high alkaloid content.  And it could have something to do with our genetic background…hmmm.

Ampalaya at Farmers Market US 1

So I’ll take 2 of each vegetable… except for the ampalaya!

Well, at least the alkaloid information explains why some people like ampalaya, while others, like me, are perplexed at how one can eat something so bitter… ON PURPOSE!

What about you?

Do you eat ampalaya or have a particular vegetable you absolutely cannot stand to eat?


More information:

St. John the Baptist Statue at Mission San Juan Bautista, California

If you visit the Spanish mission in the town of San Juan Bautista (San Benito County in Central California), you will see this statue on the church grounds.

P1280839

Because most statues of saints are depicted fully clothe, the statue is sometimes thought of as a Native American.

P1280842

But it is actually a statue of St. John the Baptist, whom the town is named after – Spanish version, San Juan Bautista.

For this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge, host Cheri Lucas posted:

Artists are inspired by and capture the world around us: sculptors immortalize people with statues; painters record events in their masterpieces. What about the other way around? For this week’s theme, find inspiration in a piece of art, and go further: imitate it.

While I don’t have a photo that imitates this particular statue of John the Baptist, I thought the photo fit the theme.

There are many historical paintings depicting St. John, partly clothe, just as in this statue.

And if you are not familiar with the religious tradition of baptism, the reason for the depiction of St. John in this manner is because baptism ceremonies were originally done in water.  Those receiving baptism were naked.

Most of the paintings and historical depictions of St. John had him partially clothe.

P1280815

So another question for me is also…how long does art continue to imitate other art?

What do you think?


Here are more photos from the San Juan Bautista Mission — which continues as an active parish today — and in need of funds for restoration projects.

P1280833

Field behind the San Juan Bautista Mission

From the website OldMissionSJB.org:

Mission San Juan Bautista was founded on June 24, 1797 and has seen a lot of wear and damage over the centuries.

The building is in need of earthquake retrofitting to guarantee survival from the inevitable shocks coming from the nearby San Andreas Fault.  There are items of great historic and artistic value in need of restoration, cleaning, and archival display. There is much that can be done to improve the educational and interpretive information in the museum and the church.


Related Post on Lola Jane’s World Blog: