What’s on our plate: The goodness of consuming native Indian vegetables

Bitter gourd, rich in vitamins A and C, iron, phosphorous and carbohydrates, needs to be re-introduced on our dinner plates

By Soma M Ghorai
Published: Monday 30 August 2021

A quick glance at my dinner plate one day made me wonder: What truly comprises Indian food?

The kids were pretty happy to have tomato-sauced pepperoni pasta with potato chips. For me, there was a healthy tomato dish and carrot soup.

The humble gourd — and the most-hated bitter gourd (called Karela in Hindi and Pavakaya in Tamil) — are becoming victims of commercialisation. Other vegetable produce such as cauliflower, cabbage, tomato, capsicum, spinach, etc are now being heavily consumed. 

A series of new diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Ebola have emerged, stoking panic about our health and immunity. The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic should be a wake-up call.

While vaccination drive in the country has picked up pace, many have apprehensions about getting inoculated. It may take the middle-class people to develop faith in vaccines, but they do want to make their immune system stronger.

Researchers too have focused attention to understand the biologically promising compounds from natural sources that can potentially be used as anti-virals. After a little research, I stumbled on the goodness of bitter gourd which has a remarkable ability to inhibit Herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) and holds immense potential to be developed as an anti-viral drug.

Most traditional vegetables consumed were gourd, snake gourd, pumpkin, cucumber and bitter gourd that mostly belonged to the Curcurbiteae family of creepers.

Other species of Curcurbiteae family that are indigenous in the West include honeydew melons, cantaloupe, watermelons and zucchini. To date, six cucurbitacins (B, D, E, E glucoside, Iso B, and Iso D) were isolated from these.

Cucurbitacins are tetracyclic triterpenoids. Their fruit and seeds are used as traditional medicines. The pulp with high carotenoid content and low fat is known to have beneficial physiological and immunomodulatory functions. Seeds of pumpkin have nutraceutical properties as it is rich in antioxidants, vitamins, tocopherols and carotenoids.

It is also known to have proteins, polyunsaturated fats and phytosterols. Cucurbitacins B, E, and D were recently found to exhibit potent antiviral activity against Bovine viral diarrhoea virus (BVDV), Hepatitis C virus (HCV) and herpes simplex virus (HSV). 

Bitter gourd is one of the neglected vegetables that has its origin in native India. Similarly, other vegetables belonging to the cucurbitacins family cucumber, pumpkin, etc are witnessing the same fate.

These vegetables have a sacred place in other ancient traditions as well. Europeans strongly believed that Cucurbita pepo, the oldest-known cultivated species belonging to the Curcurbiteae family, have great medicinal and nutritional benefits. Bitter gourd, ass the name suggests, is the most bitter among all fruits and vegetables, and is among the most nutritious as well.

It is rich in vitamins A and C, iron, phosphorous and carbohydrates. It also contains polypeptide-P, plant insulin which is known to lower blood sugar levels, and charantin, which increases glucose uptake and glycogen synthesis — both of which help reduce blood sugar levels and help treat type-2 diabetes.

Vegetables belonging to the cucurbitacins had their root in ancient traditions of Indian and Chinese food habits and medicines. It is the connection to ancestral knowledge that holds a deeper religious meaning within the natural world.

They need to be revived and their consumption increased. I fear that non-interest in consumption should not be an inevitable situation and needs to be reversed.  Apart from treating them as quaint curios; vegetables belonging to the cucurbitacin family should be revered and consumed more frequently.

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