Bitter gourd – Beauty or the Beast?

The name says it all to some folk: “BITTER gourd”…aka bitter melon, or karavila in Sri Lanka. Bitter gourd is a tropical and subtropical vine of the family Cucurbitaceae, widely grown in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean for its edible fruit, which is among the most bitter of all fruits.

Just as with Marmite, you either love it or hate it. I definitely belong to the former group.

It’s not the prettiest of vegetables…

The not-so aesthetically pleasing bitter gourd
The not-so aesthetically pleasing bitter gourd

It is, however, one of the healthiest!

Bitter gourds are very low in calories but dense with precious nutrients. It is an excellent source of vitamins B1, B2, and B3, C, magnesium, folic acid, zinc, phosphorus, manganese, and has high dietary fiber. It is rich in iron, contains twice the beta-carotene of broccoli, twice the calcium of spinach, and twice the potassium of a banana.

The gourd contains a unique phyto-constituent that has been confirmed to have a hypoglycemic effect called charantin. There is also another insulin-like compound known as polypeptide P which has been suggested as insulin replacement in some diabetic patients.

Bitter gourd (karavila) is also renowned in Sri Lankan indigenous medicine (Ayurvedic medicine) as an eradicator of toxins. Ayurvedic doctors have known about its invaluable qualities that help abate diabetes, alleviate phlegm, cleanse the blood, increase appetite and much more.

One popular way to serve bitter gourd in Sri Lanka is as a sambol to accompany rice and curry dishes.

Bitter gourd Sambol


2 or 3 large fresh karavila (bitter gourd)
2 small or medium red onions finely sliced
1/4 bottle of vegetable oil
2 or 3 green chillies finely sliced (de-seeded if you don’t want it too hot)
2   tomatoes thinly sliced
1 tbsp lime or lemon juice
Salt to taste


1. Wash bitter gourd, de-seed and slice thinly. If you want to remove some of the bitter taste you can soak the bitter gourd slices in salt water for a while before drying & frying.

2. Heat oil in a wok and deep fry karavila until golden brown.  Once done put them on a paper towel to absorb the excess oil.

3. Mix  sliced onions, tomatoes, green chilles in a bowl and add deep fried karavila.  Lastly add lemon juice and salt to taste and mix well.

NOTE: this sambol is best prepared at the last minute before eating as it tastes best when the bitter gourd is still crisp.

Bitter gourd sambol
Bitter gourd sambol

Bitter gourd curry is another favourite that I cannot get enough of:

Bitter gourd curry:


  • 2 or 3 fresh bitter gourds de-seeded and sliced thinly (see image below of how this should look)
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp chilli powder
  • 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
  • 6 to 10 curry leaves
  • Salt to taste
  • Half a cup of coconut milk
  • Juice of half a lime or lemon
  • 1 large red onion, sliced
  • 2 to 3 cloves of garlic, very finely chopped
  • 1 or 2 tomatoes, chopped into cubes
  • Oil for frying
Bitter gourd - sliced and de-seeded
Bitter gourd – sliced and de-seeded


  1. Marinate the bitter gourd slices in water, salt and turmeric for 10 minutes.
  2. Squeeze out the water and set aside the gourd.
  3. Sautee onion, garlic, mustard seeds and curry leaves until the oil starts sizzling.
  4. Add the cumin, turmeric and chilli powder and stir. Then add the gourd and stir again. Add the tomato, salt, about 1/4 cup water and the coconut milk.
  5. Let it boil until the bitter gourd is soft (8 to 10 minutes), stirring occasionally.
  6. When done, add lime/lemon juice. Check for taste. The lime/lemon minimises the bitterness of the gourd.
Simple, yummy and very healthy after all those vodka-infused snacks in my last post!
Healthy bitter gourd and tomato curry
Healthy bitter gourd and tomato curry

Bitter gourd is a significant ingredient in Okinawan cuisine, and is increasingly used in mainland Japan. It is popularly credited with Okinawan life expectancies being higher than the already long Japanese ones. Five times as many Okinawans live to be 100 than the rest of Japan, and the Japanese are the longest lived nationality in the world.

Other bitter gourd culinary uses range from the simply scrumptious Pachadi to the downright bizarre!

In the UK I know that bitter gourd is readily available in most Indian grocers in larger towns and cities, I presume this is the same in the USA & Australia and most of Europe. I would be interested to know where you buy yours!


9 thoughts on “Bitter gourd – Beauty or the Beast?”

  1. Hi Ankie, I just got through with reading your ‘The enchanting tea country’ series, Great. Loved them. My ancestors, at least from my fathers side were involved in tea business and we still have some tea lands. I love to roam around in the tea bushes, much to the dismay of the ladies who pluck tea buds. :). As I live far away, I refresh, replenish my heart and soul with blogs like yours. Much Appreciated.
    I was surprised to find this post which you just posted ‘cos I love Bitter melon or Goya as my Mom calls it. {I am half Japanese, little SL and some Dutch :), (Maar Ik spreek geen Nederlands of Sri Lankaase, Misschien, een klein beetje)}.
    Even though I am just under 25 , I am very health conscious and Bitter melon is one way I control my PH balance. When ever my body goes acidic (as an athlete, I check my PH often if not daily) I add Goya to my meals.The fruit is highly alkaline and it is warned not to eat the center pulp as it could up the alkalinity to dangerously higher basic levels.
    I usually have it Goya Chanpuru but I will try your Sambol, sans the chilies 😦
    Thanks again for making me miss SL.

    1. Hi Magerata, thanks again for reading my blog. It really is lovely to receive feedback like yours especially as I have only been blogging for 3 months!! I too adore Sri Lanka (as you can probably tell!) but I am 100% Dutch (actually there may be a tiny bit of Belgian in me…). If there are any other recipes you would like to see here let me know!

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