August 8, 2011

Bitter Melon - No Ordinary Vegetable

            Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) plant, also known as bitter gourd or balsam pear is a vine that grows in tropical areas and produces edible vegetables, recognized for being one of if not the most bitter vegetable found anywhere on Earth. To those unfamiliar with bitter melon, as I was before joining the ECVOntario research team this summer, this blog is for you.
            When I first encountered bitter melon, it was completely alien and new to me. I had no idea where it came from, what it uses were, or how to prepare it. I asked myself why anyone would want to consume a bitter vegetable, and especially one that looked like a small cucumber covered in warts. But, I thought surely this vegetable must have some redeeming qualities that I had yet to discover. After doing a little research, I learned that bitter melon has been consumed as food for centuries in tropical places like Asia, Africa, and South America, due to its wide-ranging medicinal properties, which distinguish it from most vegetables. For instance, bitter melon has been found to be effective in preventing and treating type I and type II diabetes, which is a major health concern right now in North America. Moreover, it has proven beneficial as a preventative measure and treatment against respiratory illnesses like asthma and bronchitis, digestive disorders, even cancers, and possibly HIV/AIDS. The list goes on and on.
A few days ago, I decided to give bitter melon a try and went looking for some in my home town of Guelph, Ontario. I searched the produce sections of the local Zehrs, No Frills, and Foods Basics, and was disappointed to find that not one of these supermarkets carried a bitter melon. Finally, as luck would have it, I was able to locate a few of the Indian variety from a small Indian food store in town. I brought them home and began searching for recipes. Irrespective of the variety one uses, there are several recipes for bitter melon. Since the melons that I grabbed were of the Indian kind (known as karella), that made narrowing down my decision a little easier. Finally, I decided on a simple Indian recipe I had discovered earlier while searching the internet. The photo below shows the end result of that recipe.

After great anticipation I finally got to taste the bitter melon. The bitterness was quite evident on my first bite, but I think the spices and salt did a pretty good job of masking the bitterness. One thing I forgot to do was remove the seeds, which should further help in alleviating the bitterness, so I’ll remember to do that the next time. What I can say about bitter melon is that it’s an acquired taste. If you are someone who has difficulty trying new foods, bitter melon probably isn’t for you. If however you are someone looking to expand your taste pallet and eat healthier, then I definitely recommend trying bitter melon. If anything, at least your body will thank you for incorporating this healthy vegetable into your diet. 

Andrew Filson – Undergraduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario team 2011, University of Guelph

For other bitter melon recipes, check out the links below:
Indian Deep Fried Bitter Gourd Recipe:
Chinese Stir Fried Bitter Melon Recipe:

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Farmers Markets : Are they for the Upper-Crust?

In past decade, farmers markets have grown significantly both in number of markets and consumer attendance. Many factors have caused this growth, however some main causes include growth in consumer interest in local, sustainable and/or organic foods, an effort to directly support local producers and a growth in appreciation of the community connection, which grows out of farmers markets and our relation to food.
Recognizing the growing importance of farmers markets as sources of food for many consumers, this summer I have had the opportunity to visit a number of farmers markets on behalf of ECV Ontario. Through these visits I have gained insight into the availability and feasibility of ethno-cultural vegetables (ECV) production for farmers markets. During my visits to the farmers markets, I looked at the availability of 26 preferred ethno-cultural vegetables (ECV) as well as a number of ECV that were identified by Growing International: Exploring the Demand for Culturally Appropriate Foods, as often lacking in availability.
During these visits, I found that most of the vegetables available at the markets I visited were mainstream vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, potatoes, corn, etc. The only somewhat uncommon ECV that I found regularly at the markets I visited was bok choy, which may reflect the growing mainstream popularity of the vegetable. Interestingly enough, during my visits to the markets I regularly found one of the vegetables (snowpeas), which an ECV survey found to be “often lacking in availability.”
Through conversations with farmers, I found that some of them had grown more ECV in the past. However, now a number of barriers have led them to scale back their production. The biggest challenge seemed to be access to markets. For the farmers I spoke to, the farmers markets did not provide sufficient demand to sell ECV at a profit. One farmer, for example, told me that he used to sell amaranth but he found that to sell on a larger scale it was a very difficult market to get into, and that at the price point it was difficult to make a profit. It is worth noting that, from my observations, the farmers markets I visited did not seem to be attended by large numbers of ethnic minorities, which may limit the demand for ECV at these markets.
For now it seems that the market for ECV at farmers markets is more driven by mainstream demand for new, healthy or different vegetables and less by large demand from ethno-cultural communities. That being said, the natural progression seems to be towards greater integration of different vegetables into the Canadian diet. As mainstream interest in ECV grows, probably so will the market and potentially the profit margin for local farmers.

Frances Dietrich-O’Connor, MSc Candidate
SEDRD, University of Guelph
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August 4, 2011

Ontario Food Terminal: A Place to Explore

Ontario Food Terminal (OFT) is a structure that some stakeholders in the fruits and vegetables market  are skeptical about it's contribution to the marketing and distribution of locally produced crops. The video below shows that the OFT can be instrumental to reducing the challenges in the ECV market.

 Eat Local, Taste Global!

ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph.
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