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