Bitter Melon Leaves
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Bitter melon leaves are vibrant green and attached to a vine with long thin stems. Leaves are made up of 3 to 6 veined lobes and have jagged edges. Bitter melon’s Latin name, Momordica translates as “to bite” in reference to the shape of the leaves which look as if they have been bitten. The entire bitter melon plant, including the leaves are very bitter in flavor, a taste which comes from its high content of quinine.
Bitter melon leaves are available year-round.
A member of the Cucurbitaceae family bitter melon leaves grow on the vine of the bitter melon plant, botanical name Momordica charantia. Also known as karela, bitter melon leaves are most commonly used today for medicinal purposes. Historical documentation as well as recent studies have shown that bitter melon fruit and leaves have the potential to induce labor and cause miscarriage when consumed by some individuals. Therefore it is not recommended that pregnant women consume any part of the bitter melon plant.
Bitter melon leaves are a good source of vitamin A. Bitter melon fruit and leaves are being studied for their hypoglycemic, blood sugar lowering properties and ability to help treat diabetes mellitus. An extract from the leaves is also being studied for its anti-viral, anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties and for use in treating HIV, herpes, stomach ulcers, malaria and numerous types of cancer.
Bitter melon leaves and the attached tendrils are most commonly served cooked as the heat will slightly lessen the bitterness of the greens. When cooking with other ingredients be sure to add the bitter melon leaves last to prevent an overly bitter flavor from taking over the dish. In the Philippines the leaves are commonly served with rice and mung beans in a dish known as ginisang monggo. Leaves can be used in curries, stir-fries and soups. They can be used as a substitute for or in combination with other greens in recipes where greens are called for. The leaves can also be used to make a medicinal tea. Younger leaves which have a milder flavor and delicate texture can be used in salads.
Bitter melon fruits and leaves have long been used in the Amazon for their medicinal properties. In Peru the leaves are used as an anti-viral for measles and malaria. In Nicaragua bitter melon leaves are used in the treatment of diabetes, hypertension and to aid in childbirth. In many cultures various parts of the bitter melon plant including the leaves are used as a contraceptive as they have been shown to have an antifertility effect in both males and females.
Originally native to India, the bitter melon vine made its way to China by the early 1400’s. Both the leaves and fruit of the vine have a long history of use in Brazil, India and the Amazon for medicinal purposes. Bitter melon thrives in the tropical regions of East Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and South America.
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