The Canny Gardener

how to grow, cook and use plants, plus some philosophy!


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A bitter sweet experience

Bitter gourd or karela (in India), is a unique vegetable-fruit that can be used as food or medicine.  As the edible part of the plant Momordica Charantia, it is considered the most bitter among all fruits and vegetables.  My children hate it but I’ve persuaded them to eat it. It has such a bitter taste which is difficult to acquire easily. So why would anyone eat such a vegetable?

In traditional Indian medicine, bitter gourd has used for a range of diseases, including colic, fever, burns, chronic cough, painful menstruation, skin conditions including wounds and assist childbirth.  In parts of Africa and Asia, the bitter gourd is used prevent or treat malaria and viral diseases such as measles and chicken pox. The plant grows well in the tropical climate and is found in Indian grocery stores in the West.  However, people are not aware of its amazing properties when they look at the strange warty surface of the gourd- indeed it is neither attractive to look at or to eat.

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Fresh bitter gourd which can sliced thinly and eaten with lemon and salt but don’t eat too much of it- mild abdominal pain or diarrhoea can result

But research has proved that it has amazing medicinal properties- including fighting Type-2 diabetes and cancer.  In January 2011, the results of a four-week clinical trial were published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology , which showed that a 2,000 mg daily dose of bitter melon significantly reduced blood glucose levels among patients with type 2 diabetes, although the hypoglycemic effect was less than a 1,000 mg/day dose of metformin.  The gourd contains at least three active substances with anti-diabetic properties, including charanti, which has been confirmed to have a blood glucose-lowering effect, vicine, an insulin-like compound known as polypeptide-p and lectin. Lectin is an appetite suppressant that reduces food intake and consequently thought to be a major factor behind the hypoglycemic effect that develops after eating it. In clinical trials in the USA show that extracts from bitter gourd can kill breast cancer cells and prevent them from growing and spreading.

Bitter gourd can be taken in several forms- a fresh fruit (squeeze some lemon juice and sprinkle salt), juice, and the seeds can be added to food in a powdered form. In traditional Bengali foods, it is eaten fried with turmeric and salt- this makes it quite palatable.  It can also be boiled with the rice, then the gourd eaten with some salt.  Some of the bitterness is lost this way.  Fresh or dried and made into tea- the Japanese like it this way and the tea is actually not bad at all- much of the bitter taste is gone especially with a teaspoon of honey in it.

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Fried bitter gourd with turmeric, chillies and salt.

Alternatively, bitter melon extract can be bought as a herbal supplement in health food shops. But because the gourd reduces blood sugar, the dose will need to be watched carefully and it is best to start with a small amount.

But considering everything it is an amazingly versatile medicinal plant. I’m trying to grow some from the seeds I’ve saved when summer comes and let you know how that goes!

 


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Colourful winter vegetables

It is said that one must eat all colours of the rainbow for a healthy diet.  It may seem that in winter this is not possible but by visiting local shops, I’m discovering a variety of vegetables of all colours. Here are some- purple cauliflower and red carrots.

The great thing about these vegetables are that because they have so much flavour, they can cooked very simply- roasted with some olive oil, steamed, pulsed into soups or even eaten raw.  They don’t need much flavouring- just salt and pepper will do.  The photographs show the purple cauliflower and carrots roasted. Also, shown is a simple soup of broccoli with some stilton (left over from Christmas).  I also chopped up the leaves and stems from the cauliflower and made it into stir fry with rice- my zero waste effort.

Cauliflowers are good for a healthy heart, and purple ones, which get their colour from anthocyanins- flavonoid pigments that also give red cabbage, purple carrots, and many berries- give the same health benefits as these ‘super foods’.  It is said that anthocyanins can help with rheumatoid arthritis, due to their strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.  Cauliflowers contain 46 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 gram serving and they also contain Vitamin K and calcium- all good for warding off winter colds and aches and pains.

PS- I haven’t grown them but I’m supporting small farmers and buying locally- so that is really a canny thing to do!


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Learning from traditional cuisines

This month of January is ‘Veganuary’.  People are being encouraged to eat vegan foods, or if they can’t bear that, at least vegetarian foods. A vegan diet involves cutting out animal products like meat, fish, dairy, cheese and eggs. According to the Vegan Society, conducted in 2018, there are around 600,000 vegans in Great Britain, most of whom are women.  There are also ‘life style’ vegans- people who won’t wear leather, or using cosmetics made from animal products even if these are organic or use eco-friendly methods of production. Being Vegan has been even declared a philosophical belief- this month a court in Norwich ruled that it had been a violation of the UK’s 2010 Equality Act after a worker said he was fired for raising concerns that his employer’s pension fund was being invested in companies involved in animal testing.

An environmental writer and campaigner, George Monbiot, says that ‘the protein content of beef  is just 25%. And beef generates more carbon dioxide per kg than a return flight from London to New York ( Beef creates 1250kg per kg of protein as opposed to 986kg of CO2 per air passenger)  There other environmental costs of beef such as livestock feed, packaging, transportation, disposal of waste, etc. So were the Indians on to something when they declared that the cow is ‘holy’ and that beef should not be eaten?  In fact, one third of Indians are vegetarians and most of the ones that eat meat, do not eat beef.  Did that belief have some practical consideration because livestock also need large areas for grazing?  Land management is a crucial issue for the 21st century- at present, most countries have more areas set aside for grazing than for forests. In Africa, this is causing havoc and on a planetary scale, it is causing desertification, climate change and changes in the water tables.

Eating meat is considered a move up the social and economic scale, so when people become rich they start eating meat.  But eating too much meat, especially red meat, is also creating health problems. In the Philippines, the social attraction of eating meat is so high that poor people will eat recycled meat- called Pag Pag, this is meat that has been thrown out from restaurants and homes, eaten by rats and contaminated by other waste. It is washed, cooked again and sold. Why should people eat such meat? Where is the desperation? Filipino food is actually quite healthy with a combination of meat and vegetables and combines the cuisine of the East with the West.  When I commented about this, I got so much abuse from people that I had to leave the facebook group.

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Another aspect of healthy eating is portion size. In my village, rice, legumes and other grains used to be measured out using this wooden cup. When I first saw it as a child, I thought it was a bit mean!  But now, having measured the container, I realise that a portion of that cup is the same size as the cupped palm. That is amazing! So again traditional wisdom knew that portion sizes needed be cut down and created this wooden cup for measuring exact amounts per person.

 

There must be other traditional wisdom in ancient cultures all around the world. If you know of other aspects, please write in the comments below.

PS: So considering their traditional diet, would Indians be more environmentally friendly than a European who is consuming beef and flying as well?