Goya, better known to Westerners as bitter melon, is one of Okinawa’s most famous vegetables and a major part of the Okinawan diet. While many foods contribute to the excellent health of locals, bitter melon is perhaps the most honored and revered.
The distinctive bitter taste of goya can take some getting used to, but it’s definitely worth adding to your regular diet. You’ll find quite a few ways to prepare bitter melon to help neutralize the bitterness and chalky texture, so you can enjoy this healthy food.
What Is Goya?
Bitter melon, or bitter gourd, is a member of the gourd family. It looks somewhat like a thick green cucumber with a very bumpy texture, and it grows on vines. You’ll find goya in abundance in Asian supermarkets and grocery stores during spring and summer, and occasionally in health food stores and other supermarkets that feature international vegetables and fruits.
The bitter melon contains a range of important vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. It is an excellent source of dietary fiber, and it contains twice the potassium of a banana, twice the calcium of spinach, and twice the beta-carotene of broccoli.
Health Benefits of Bitter Melon
With such a wide range of nutrients, it’s no wonder there are many health benefits of bitter melon. Some of the biggest benefits of consuming bitter melon as part of your regular diet are as follows:
1. Helps Maintain Blood Sugar Levels
Bitter melon contains a plant-based insulin, and eating bitter melon regularly helps to reduce blood glucose levels in individuals suffering from type-2 diabetes. It also helps to better maintain blood sugar levels in individuals with type-1 diabetes, and serves to improve glycemic control.
2. Improves Heart Health
Bitter melon helps to decrease the amount of bad cholesterol in the body, subsequently reducing the risk of heart disease and related ailments, such as stroke. The high amount of potassium in goya also helps to improve blood pressure, and the folic acid and iron also help to lower the risk of strokes and heart disease.
3. Improves Immune System Health
The many antioxidants, vitamins and minerals in bitter gourd help to improve immune system health; fight against viruses, diseases and harmful bacteria; and reduce the risk of allergies. A study showed that bitter gourd can also reduce the risk of certain cancers and that it possesses anti-tumor properties.
4. Cleanses the Liver
Bitter gourd contains a compound that helps to improve antioxidant activity and strengthen liver enzymes. Many say that bitter gourd juice also makes a great hangover cure, and the fruit even improves bladder functions and provides better cleansing of the bowels.
5. Aids in Weight Loss
Since bitter gourd is low in fat, carbs and calories, it is an excellent food to add to your diet if you’re trying to lose weight. It also helps you to feel full faster, enabling you to feel satisfied and eat less. Studies have shown that bitter gourd also helps to decrease the formation of new fat cells.
6. Improves Skin and Hair Health
The high amount of antioxidants and vitamin A present in goya helps to improve the health of your hair and skin, reducing wrinkles and keeping hair shiny and lustrous. It also helps to reduce the risk of skin ailments such as acne and eczema.
How to Prep Goya
When choosing goya in the market, choose ones that are firm and dark green. These will not be as bitter. Remove the inner seeds and the rind, which results in a cleaner and pleasant appearance.
To reduce the bitterness, slice the bitter melon thinly (about 2mm thickness). However, if you plan to stir-fry the goya, you can slice it a bit thicker (about 5mm) as it will hold up better in the pan and the stir-frying itself serves to reduce the bitterness.
Additionally, there are also two seasoning methods for reducing bitterness:
Rub with salt—1 teaspoon of salt to 1 goya. Put slices in a bowl, sprinkle with salt and rub the salt into the slices with your hands, then allow to rest for 10 min.
Rub with sugar and salt. 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 2 teaspoon of sugar for 1 goya. Same method as above.
**Sugar removes the initial bitterness you taste right after you put goya in your mouth, but won’t remove the whole bitterness of goya. On the other hand, salt doesn’t remove the initial taste of bitterness, but it will reduce the bitterness as a whole. So, if you prefer some of the bitter flavor, the salt method is recommended, but if you don’t want any bitterness, opt for the salt+sugar method as it removes both the beginning taste and the aftertaste.
4 Ways to Prepare Bitter Melon
There are many ways to prepare bitter melon to enjoy as part of your regular diet. Here are some of the most common ways residents of Japan enjoy goya:
Add It to a Stir-Fry
Try adding small slices of bitter melon to a stir-fry dish. It goes well with pork, and the saltiness of soy sauce helps to further balance the bitter flavor. Try it with dried shrimp or additional vegetables, and add a bit of garlic and red wine vinegar for even more umami.
A popular bitter melon stir-fry dish is Goya Champuru which also features tofu, pork belly, and egg, and is typically served along with rice and miso soup for a full-balanced and hearty meal.
Add It to Soups and Stews
A simple soup of bitter melon, Japanese mushrooms, dashi or plain chicken/vegetable broth, and some additional seasonings creates a flavorful and easy-to-make meal. You can add it to stews for a heartier dish.
Bitter Melon Miso Soup
After prepping goya, quickly boil the pieces and then drain. Boil dashi broth and goya over high heat and mix in miso. Pour in a cup and add a few drops of sesame oil for a flavorful dose of umami.
Make Bitter Melon Tempura
Coat the bitter melon in various seasonings or spice to your taste, and then dip it into the tempura batter before frying.
There are other ways to enjoy this healthy food, but the above ideas should get you started!