Filipino folk belief: Observe silence while cooking ampalaya, else it will become very bitter.
Ampalaya, also known as bitter melon, holds a significant place in Filipino cuisine. Whether it’s featured in dishes like ginisang ampalaya or pinakbet, its distinct bitter flavor is unmistakable.
The science behind this folkloric belief may lie in the composition of bitter melon. When exposed to heat, bitter melon releases compounds responsible for its distinctive bitterness called cucurbitacins. The longer ampalaya is cooked, the more these and natural protective pesticides, which serve as the plant’s defense mechanism, are released, and the more pronounced its bitterness becomes. Perhaps, if a cook engages in conversation while preparing this vegetable, they might become distracted, leading to extended cooking times and, consequently, a more intensely bitter flavor.
However, we can dig deeper than flavor to find the significance of this belief. Ampalaya, scientifically known as Momordica charantia, is native to the Philippines and has a long history in traditional healing, many of which are now scientifically-proven medicinal benefits. This plant has been traditionally used for centuries across Asia, the Caribbean, and the Philippines, to cure a wide range of ailments, including skin conditions, fevers, and viruses. Epidemiological and laboratory studies have drawn links between reduced cancer and diabetes rates and its consumption. Almost every part of the ampalaya plant, from its fruit to its roots and leaves, can be harnessed for the preparation of teas, tinctures, and decoctions. We’ll have to team up with The House of Herbs to find out more!
The act of observing silence while cooking ampalaya honors a deeper cultural significance. Silence is often a form of respect, allowing room for the unseen and unspoken to be felt and integrated. The bitterness is said to help digest painful experiences, strengthen the heart, and prompt toxins to flow away from you. This same bitterness may also act as a deterrent to malicious spirits. Some say that if ampalaya tastes especially bitter, then you need more of it!
In our world that is often filled with artificial sweeteners, processed foods, and quick fixes, cooking and consuming ampalaya can be a grounding force that asks us to be present in our bodies and attuned towards all forces and flavors around us. It is a gift to receive the body and spirit medicine ampalaya offers; perhaps silence and gratitude is all she asks for in return.
What ampalaya dishes do you enjoy, and do you have any tips on reducing bitterness?
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Ray, Ratna B., et al. “Bitter melon (momordica charantia) extract inhibits breast cancer cell proliferation by modulating cell cycle regulatory genes and promotes apoptosis.” Cancer