Bitter Gourd & Toad In The Hole
The bitter gourd is a tropical plant that is widely cultivated in Asia, India, and South America for its intensely bitter fruits. I never used to like eating them as a kid – in fact, growing up I actually despised eating vegetables in general and remember fondly the time I threw my broccoli and carrots into the bin when my mum wasn’t looking and then was made to pick them out of the bin AND EAT THEM after she’d realized what I’d done. (I drenched them in ketchup and finished them through tears, in case you’re wondering how that story ends.) Anyway, I love eating bitter gourds now and even find myself occasionally craving them! As my mum always say, “gotta taste the bitter to appreciate the sweet!”
Fact: kids tend to be more open to eating vegetables when they are involved in the growing and cooking process.
Varieties from India are usually smaller in size with a very knobbly surface and pointed ends. They tend to taste more bitter too. While those of the Chinese variety are milder in taste and are generally larger and smoothly ridged with blunt ends. (We mostly grow the Chinese variety.)
The plant is a short living perennial climber with thin stems that can grow up to 5m in length. They require support quite soon after sprouting so be sure to have a sturdy trellis ready. The plant produces male and female flowers, both of which are yellow. Male flowers open first, followed in a week or so by female blossoms. Female flowers have a swelling (the ovary) at the base of the bloom resembling a tiny melon. Flowers are easily pollinated by insects but if you find no bees at work in the garden, pollination can be done by hand. Pick male flowers and transfer pollen by touching the centre part of the male flowers against the centre part of the female flowers.
Left – male flower; Right – female flowers
They love being in full sun and have a preference for sandy loamy soil that is rich in organic matter. They can tolerate drought-like conditions for a short time but regular watering to keep soil evenly moist is essential to ensure a good yield. Insufficient water might also cause fruit to curl.
The vine produces numerous side shoots, most of which should be removed to improve yield. Once main vine has reached the top of your trellis, cut its tip and leave only 4-6 side shoots on the plant to improve its productivity.
The plant should start to bear fruit within two months and after four to six weeks fattening on the vine, fruit are ready to be harvested when they are a pale green, about three to six inches long – depending on the variety. It is said each plant can produce 10-12 fruit, but ours usually produce about six to seven before they start looking like they are done. They make good companion plants to beans, corn, and pumpkin, but should never be planted with potatoes.
Inside the fruit, you’ll find large seeds which should not be eaten. Mature seeds, which are typically found in fruit that have started yellowing and ripening, have a ruby red jelly-like pulp coating known as aril. (You can eat this coating.) The coating is meant to entice animals to consume the seeds, thereby assisting in seed dispersal. To save seeds, simply remove the aril by rubbing seeds between your fingers. Then dry seeds in the sun before storing in a cool and dry place.
Germination is not difficult but can take up to two to three weeks. However, there are some tricks to make this happen faster. I usually like to crack the seed coat slightly before sowing my seeds. To do this, I place a seed between my secateurs – pretending it is a nutcracker – and press down lightly until I hear a small crunch sound. Just be careful not to damage the endosperm within – or your fingers – if you’re doing this.
Alternatively, you can rub seeds against a rough surface on one side to wear down the seed coat or soak seeds in water for 24 hours. Once you’ve treated your seeds, bury them about an inch below the soil surface and they should sprout within the next few days!
Fortunately, we don’t usually get any pests or diseases with our bitter gourd plants but they are known to be susceptible to rust and fungal diseases such as powdery mildew. To minimize fungal diseases, ensure your vines are well trellised to improve air circulation.
The bitter gourd is one of the healthiest vegetables and has many medicinal uses. It is used as a natural remedy for treating diabetes and high in vitamins and rich in minerals – especially folate and vitamin C. It has also been shown to contain powerful antiviral properties that can stimulate the immune system and activate the body’s natural killer cells to help fight off viruses.
They are typically eaten unripe when they are still green and the flesh is watery and crunchy. They can be sliced thinly and consumed raw in salads or lightly stir-fried. My favourite way to have them is fried up with egg and more recently in fluffy Yorkshire pudding.
Last week Scott introduced us to the British classic, Toad in the hole, consisting of sausages in Yorkshire pudding batter, usually enjoyed with onion gravy. My mum and I, being, y’know, us, decided to throw in some bitter gourd when we made this dish for the third time that week – without Scott’s supervision. We were slightly worried about bastardizing the dish but it turned out to be a really nice addition and even Scott enjoyed it. (To be fair, Yorkshire pudding is really eggy, which we already know goes extremely well with bitter gourd.)
Traditional Toad in the hole with roast chicken and a couple of side salads.
Ingredients (feeds 5 people)
Milk, same quantity as eggs
All-purpose flour, same quantity as eggs
Pinch of sea salt
1 bitter gourd, sliced
2 large red onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 knobs butter
6 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 stock cube (vegetable or chicken)
1. Preheat oven to 250 C.
2. Brown your sausages on the stove. (They don’t have to be cooked through, you just want to get some colour on them.)
3. Take sausages off the stove and then fill your tin with oil – to a depth of about 0.5cm. Place tin in the oven.
4. Meanwhile, beat eggs, flour, milk, and salt together in a jug until light and smooth.
5. Once the oil is piping hot, take your tin out of the oven and add the bitter gourd. Then pour the batter over everything. Be careful as it will bubble and possibly even spit a little as you are doing this.
6. Stick your tin back into the oven and don’t open it for at least 20 minutes, as Yorkshire puddings can be a bit finicky when rising. Remove from the oven when golden and crisp.
7. For the gravy, fry the onions and garlic in butter on medium heat until they go sweet and translucent. Add balsamic vinegar and allow it to cook down by half.
8. At this point, I do cheat a little and throw in a stock cube. You can get some good ones in the supermarkets these days that aren’t full of rubbish. Add a cup of water and allow to simmer and you’ll have a really tasty onion gravy in no time.