A Question of Taste – (Part 3) – Bitter? Moi?

Taste is rarely discussed when people talk to me about nutrition, as if it wasn’t a fundamental factor in what we choose to eat. But let’s face facts – if cabbage tasted like chocolate would we be facing an obesity crisis? Or, if Bitter Gourd tasted like those warm sugary doughnuts on Brighton Pier might we be more successful in stemming the rising tide of Diabetes Type 2?

A few months ago while pondering the importance of taste in making food choices, I faced my latest taste hump. I was discussing various medicinal foods with a Sri Lankan friend while waiting to collect our sons from school. I raised the subject of the above mentioned bitter gourd also known as bitter melon, balsam pear, karela – or to give it its scientific name, Momordica charantia. I’d read about its use in traditional medicine in many countries in Asia and Africa, as well as Turkey and Jamaica to address complaints as diverse as digestive disorders, rheumatism, gout, skin diseases, parasites and diabetes. A quick glance through some recent research literature revealed claims about its many health benefits to be more than mere folklore. For example, the pathways through which the bitter gourd exerts its preventive effects against insulin resistance – at least in rats – are now partially understood and its potential use as a therapeutic agent for breastliver, and kidney & colon, among other cancers is being actively investigated.

I was excited to see they were part of Sri Lankan cuisine. Did my friend personally eat them? “Yes,” she giggled, with a twinkle in her eye.

Some days later her son handed me a carrier bag containing three bitter gourds. They nestled in the bottom of the bag looking like cucumbers afflicted with a serious dose of leprosy. I couldn’t wait to take them home and try them! My friend had also provided a link to a recipe for Bitter Gourd Masala “just in case you want to disguise their taste” she said, smiling. I was making a curry that night so it seemed like the perfect accompaniment. I decided to boil some as well, so we could try them without masking their natural flavour, and I’d read you could drink the juice they’d been boiled in for added health benefits.

A few days later I saw my friend again. She read my expression from a distance of ten feet and we both erupted in laughter. “I had no idea they would be so…..um..bitter,” I say, trying not to hurt her feelings.

“It’s really terrible, isn’t it? ” she laughed, seeing through my attempt at politeness. “We don’t often have them because no one except me really wants to eat them,” she explained, adding,  “I think you have to grow up with the taste to really appreciate it – and also to know that it’s doing you some good.”

Bitter might not be the most helpful word to describe this vegetable. I’m thinking more along the lines of – poisonous, acrid, heart-rendingly nasty, or just plain cruel. If I hadn’t expected it to be quite such a challenge (I’d done my homework) I’d have seriously wondered whether I’d eaten a lump of pesticide residue. It was actually so bitter I worried it might be potentially harmful (it is, if you are pregnant or take diabetes meds – so beware). I also wondered whether I might risk poisoning my family…..

I needn’t have worried.

My husband nibbled a minuscule piece before looking at me in disbelief, shaking his head and slinking out of the kitchen. “Come on, dad! Be brave. You only tried, like, a few atoms” taunted my son, who, hats off to him, tried slightly more than a few atoms worth. His response was to give a Munchian Silent Scream and fall to the floor laughing hysterically while kicking his legs in the air. He then clasped his hands around his throat, widened his eyes and shook his head in disbelief. Watching this dramatic, unbridled expression of unadulterated disgust from a 9yr old was amusing, but disappointing. He’s usually up for anything on the taste front. I turn back to the gourd sighing, “I guess that’s a no!”

The bitter-gourd masala sat in the fridge for quite a few days before we dared try it again. Oddly, it didn’t taste quite so bad. Bitter, yes sure, but not quite as potentially lethal. I ate a few mouthfuls – determined to find some way to outsmart my tastebuds. I was sure reason could trump senses. Sadly, most of it went straight in the bin.

I’m determined to try it again soon. I conquered Brussels Sprouts – and even learned to enjoy them, so I know can do the same with this. Taste avoidance and taste aversion are apparently different processes. The point being that as long as a food doesn’t produce physical symptoms of illness (e.g. nausea) it suggests avoidance can be overcome – or unlearned. My learned associations with respect to Bitter Gourd’s taste are negative, because to me it tastes just like bile. But knowing that it’s a learned association, that it has health benefits and that it won’t make me sick means I can potentially conquer this Pidurutalagala of taste humps.

I’ll keep you posted. I simply refuse to be defeated by a warty, green (healthy) vegetable!

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