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:

8 thoughts on “What makes ampalaya bitter and why I chose frogs over this super bitter gourd vegetable

  1. Ampalaya? I think we called this vegetable bitter gourd when I was growing up in Malaysia and Singapore. Like you, I am not a huge fan of it at all, and if it was served to me for dinner by my mum, I’d push it to the side of the plate. Those were two very interesting lunch options you had…but I really do not know about eating frogs.

    Bitter is not a taste that I personally prefer at all. However, I do think I dislike sour more.

    Some of my friends do not like eating broccoli, but I love it! On the other hand, brussell sprouts might seem rather similar looking to it but I am not a fan of the sprouts. They can be very bitter at times 😀

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one that pushes this veggie to the side of the plate, Mabel. The bitterness is so overwhelming to me, and yes, like you, I have no problem with eating broccoli.

      Interesting on your comment about sour foods, as I do like many Filipino sour dishes like sinigang — soups made sour with tamarind — or food made sour with a little chartreuse colored fruit called “kamias”. My daughter and grandsons are fond of sour soups too.

      And on sour — my older sister loves her sour salted plums (and candied tamarind) way more than anyone else in the family, and maybe it is not a coincidence that she likes ampalaya, too!

      • On the rare occasions that I’ve had a few bites of the bittergourd, the bitterness stayed in my mouth for quite a while. It was highly distracting 😀

        My mum likes sour slated plums too. I do not like them one bit! Sour really is not my taste I suppose. Sour soups? My mum likes to make tofu soup that is lightly sour – the sour taste comes from the tomatoes she puts in the soup. That kind of sour I don’t mind.

        • I like how you put that about the bitterness, Mabel — “distracting”.

          Definitely more polite than my reaction, AKKK! ICK!!! 🙂

          But yes, it is distracting to eat other foods when one has that bitter taste lingering.

  2. A wonderful post! Loved all the information and your delicious looking food pictures – even the bitter parts, although I’m convinced I would share your aversion to the ampalaya!

  3. I’ve heard that all those kids that hate broccoli (I was one of them) do so for good reason–it truly tastes bad to them. That can change with age, as it did with me. Now I love broccoli. Odd though–cooking it makes the kitchen smell a little unpleasant to me.

    If I ever meet up with bitter melon, I will think of this post and steer clear!

    • I didn’t think about taste buds changing over time, but I suppose that was the point of the Dr. Weil article too, Hollis — that you can adapt your taste buds to these bitter flavors.

      I think I did that with olive oil. It wasn’t something I grew up with (we used coconut oil or vegetable oil in the Philippines) and olive oil tasted very strong to me at first. Olives are one of the high alkaloid foods.

      But now I love using olive oil, and appreciate that sharp, fresh pressed olive oil flavor on salads.

      Funny about broccoli, my grandsons LOVE broccoli and in general liked almost all veggies I cooked for them even as toddlers — and I joked they had palates from another planet.

      But ampalaya — nope, haven’t learned to like it, because that would mean I would have to chew and swallow it first, hahaha.

Now that you are here, I would love to know what you think...comments are always appreciated.