When I arrived at my office on Monday morning a plastic bag was hanging from the door handle. My first glimpse from the outside made me think the bag contained cucumbers and my quick follow up refined the thought to small pickling cucumbers. I was a little puzzled as I did not think December was the season of the giving of cucumbers but even so, I was all for it. I put the bag aside and started my day. I figured the answer to the questions the bag of cucumbers posed would present itself soon enough.
Sure enough, a short while later, my hallmate, friend, and partner in the quest to nourish the needy, Marie, came by to tell me that a mutual client of ours had brought me some bitter melon. Bitter melon? Is that what those were? Oh yes, of course. My East Indian client had told me like six months ago he would bring me something. I reached for the bag once again and untied the knot to truly receive the gifts of this rather odd fruit. Staring me in the face were five of the strangest cucumbers I had ever seen. I suddenly felt like the game keeper of little tiny crocodiles.
A quick google search informed me that I was now sharing my office with five Momordica charantia, the most bitter of any fruit, and though they come in various shapes and sizes, I was in the company of the sub-continent phenotype. The next thing I knew, Marie, a nurse, who is always quick to action, was back in my office with a red plastic plate and a white plastic spoon. She grabbed one of those emerald babies and took immediately to its dissection. With the red, green and white color palette, it seemed like some ancient Christmas ritual. I was not sure she knew what she was getting us into. This was not your momma’s ordinary cucumber and I was still not convinced it was vegetable not animal. I winced as she made the first vertical slice.
As she did, an intense, I suppose bitter odor filled the room. I would not say it was completely unpleasant, but now I was more afraid we might be dealing with a controlled substance. Eviscerated, the dear little bitter melon did not look dissimilar to other members of the squash or melon family. As it was pretty narrow, the insides were filled mainly by the seeds surrounded by a little flesh. Marie went right for the seed and then wondered if she should have exercised more caution. I dabbled in the skin and flesh. Microbites seemed sufficient for now as we then googled how one was to prepare these things, which I was determined to do in honor of my client who had gone to the trouble to bring me them. I considered regifting but thought better of it.
The amazing Internet proposed a multitude of recipes for my little warty friends. Teas, sauces, curries, stir fries and cocktails were all possible. Even desserts apparently–though I wondered if they would be deserving of the extra “s”. Marie, who was not yet hallucinating, left me alone to ponder. Shortly after though, as luck would have it, my other hallmate, the psychiatrist, who is Indian, happened by. I invited him in to show off my gift. Of course, bitter melon. He was familiar and well-versed in this botanical wonder. He gave me a few suggestions including stuffing the little buggers with any nice savory filling. He said all parts could be eaten but some people don’t enjoy the seeds. Further research did inform me that some types of the seeds can indeed induce difficulties in susceptible individuals.
As the day proceeded, the sacrificial fruit lay exposed right next to me on my desk. Though I had been aware of bitter melon being known for its powerful anti-diabetes properties since it increases insulin sensitivity–which was why my client and I had even discussed it –my experience with it had been seeing it used in various glucose support supplements. Spending a day with one was a different story. Just seeing it, touching it, and most potently, smelling it made it obvious that this was a powerful healer–like many plants are. Maybe not too dissimilar from a hot chili pepper, its acrid scent wafted into my lungs, blood and brain.
Bitter melon contains many biologically active substances and has many medicinal uses. Its benefits are quite impressive. Besides its role in diabetes, it has anti-parasitic, anti-viral, anti-malarial, cardio-protective, anti-dysentary and anti-cancer properties. After a short time in its company, I would not doubt any of these. So informed, I carried these big green pills home with me. To be honest, visually they gave me the willies and I was cautious about their use. I enjoy the taste of bitter to some extent and gladly ingest all types of bitter greens but my lack of experience with them gave me some pause. Still, I jumped right in and sliced one thinly into that evening’s dinner of a seitan stir-fry. As my family sat to eat, I gave fair warning. Blended on my fork with other foods it found some welcome in my mouth. I am open to a future relationship though I may leave that to other Asian cooks and if I ever have a nematode worm or diabetes, I would gladly consider its use.
I have a sad confession, that due to my nutritionist vibe in my work settings, I am often excluded from excuses for food excess events. A tiny example is the other day I was walking down the hallway. A co-worker was walking right next to me. A nurse approached us and said directly to my co-walker, I have coffee cake back in my office, go have some. Years ago, this obvious slight would have stung, but by now I am rather used to the fact that often I am not invited to play in all the reindeer games. Someone at work did give me some lovely little Ghiradelli chocolate squares but besides the bitter melons that was about it. Oh, wait. I did speak on the phone this week with Miss Henry from my post, Lose 14 Pounds in Three Years. She told me she was going to be bringing me some Sweet Potato Pie.
Well, anyway, so it goes. In the spirit of this holiday season, I wish you both peace in the world and in your hearts, wonderful visions of sugar plums–which it turns out was once sugar-coated coriander but now seems to be a confection of almonds, dates and dried apricots (see recipe below) and the gift of health.
I would love to hear from you and could use some new Haikus for Christmas.
In health, Elyn
My Plate Haiku
Food is medicine
Farmers are doctors, Cooks priests
Eat, pray, eat, pray, love. By Gordon