Plants with a pur­pose

Why you need to grow this mouth-puck­er­ing vege

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS JENNY SOMERVELL

Mo­mordica cha­ran­tia is a long, warty, green fruit that looks like it’s wear­ing al­li­ga­tor skin. The slightly-smoothed ridges run the length of the fruit with dozens of lit­tle blis­tered, warty bumps be­tween them. They look like suit­able fare for crea­tures in a Star Wars movie.

When I first saw them hang­ing from their vig­or­ous vines, I was fas­ci­nated, and also amazed peo­ple would con­sider eat­ing them, es­pe­cially with the skins on.

As far as flavour goes, the ‘bit­ter’ in their name gives it away. The vine is grown for its ed­i­ble im­ma­ture fruits, which have a dis­tinct, bit­ter flavour due to the pres­ence of qui­nine, the same thing that gives tonic wa­ter it’s dis­tinc­tive taste. In cook­ing, it tends to bring out the flavour of other in­gre­di­ents and is also neu­tralised by them.

It’s var­i­ously known as bit­ter cu­cum­ber, bit­ter melon or gourd, al­li­ga­tor pear and bal­sam pear, the In­di­ans call it karella, the Ok­i­nawans goya, the Chinese ku gua (bit­ter gourd), jin li zhi (bright beau­ti­ful ly­chee) or lao pu tao (ugly grape). Strangely, both those last two names ap­ply as they could be seen as both beau­ti­ful and ugly, de­pend­ing on your per­spec­tive. I think they’re beau­ti­ful.

As they ma­ture the fruits go from pale green to dark green or sil­very white, to or­angey-red when fully ripe. Some­times the ripe fruit will split open re­veal­ing a bright red pulp.

Fruit size and shape vary con­sid­er­ably, with va­ri­eties rang­ing from 10-20cm long. They can be spin­dle-shaped, pear­shaped or ob­long, with most ta­per­ing to the tip. Ex­per­i­ment­ing with un­usual fruit is al­ways fun and bit­ter melon adds a dis­tinctly ex­otic touch to the green­house. If you want to stretch cli­matic bound­aries at the same time as ex­tend­ing your palate, these groovy cur­cu­bits are worth a try.

If there is one veg­etable that could have come from an­other uni­verse, bit­ter melon would be it.

It is one of the veg­eta­bles cred­ited with giv­ing the is­lan­ders of Ok­i­nawa one of the high­est life ex­pectan­cies in the world.

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