Bittersweet at its best

Searching for the secret to a long and healthy life? Look no further than this perplexing plant.

When grocery shopping in Japan, you’re bound to encounter a unique and unfamiliar fruit in the produce section. Firm, dark green, oddly bumpy and cucumber-shaped, goya can easily bring to mind its cool, crisp doppelgänger at first glance—but you’ll be in for a surprise when you take the first bite!

Originating in India and introduced to China in the 1300s, goya—otherwise known as “bitter melon”—has long enjoyed popularity in parts of Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, even as it is largely unknown in other parts of the world. A tropical fruit that enjoys full sunlight, goya thrives in the harsh heat of summer and is thus grown primarily in Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa. Chockfull of vitamins and antioxidants, this firm fruit has been linked to Okinawa’s impressive centenarian population, earning it plenty of attention throughout Japan despite its decidedly bitter flavour.

Planted in the spring and harvested through summer and fall, goya plants begin by sprouting small yellow flowers, signalling pollination and prompting the fruit to begin growing just below the flowers. When planted in an area with at least half a day’s worth of direct sunlight and assisted by wire or bamboo, goya stalks can grow up to five metres tall. Whether from your garden or an Asian grocery store, goya is best enjoyed unripe (dark green and blemish-free) and can be stored in the fridge for about a week.

P12-2So just how do you go about eating this funky fruit? Beginners, chomp with caution: this extremely bit- ter melon is an acquired taste. Start by chopping off the ends and slicing lengthwise to open it up, revealing a mass of seeds held inside by white fibres. Spoon out the seeds and slice the remaining goya into thin strips. Boil or soak the slices in salted water for ten minutes to reduce bitterness, then toss them in a salad for a sharp, crunchy kick. Making a stir-fry? Add goya slices as you normally would bell peppers and you’ll find yourself enjoying a regional specialty, goya champru (literally “something mixed” in Okinawan). Have a juicer? Throw goya in along with your usual green juice ingredients and drink down the nutritional benefits.

High in vitamins A, B and C as well as folate and flavonoids, goya is championed for its vast array of medicinal properties. Polypeptide-P assists in lowering blood sugar levels while charantin increases the body’s ability to metabolize glucose, making this melon a great addition to type-2 diabetic diets. Blood-purifying agents help treat skin conditions like acne and eczema, and cool- ing and cleansing effects aid in reducing water retention and stimulating digestion. Pregnant women, however, should steer clear of goya as it can induce contractions.

Look for goya in your local Asian supermarket or give it a try the next time you’re in Japan. Prepare yourself for the bitter taste, but keep in mind that the payoff is worth it—just ask the Okinawan elderly population, currently enjoying a life expectancy among the longest in the world.