I have had a complex love-hate relationship with gourds my whole life. While I have always loved cucumbers, I have never been fond of sponge gourds (called gilki in Central India), bitter gourds (karela) or bottle gourds (lauki). My aversion to these gourds was so strong that it kept me prejudiced against all other vegetables with a similar appearance. My fierce hatred of sponge gourds led my maternal grandmother–God bless her soul–to trick me into eating sponge gourd sabzi (essentially a spiced soup with boiled, diced vegetables) by telling me that it was cucumber sabzi. My mom followed suit, and it was only many years later, when I was old enough to know my Luffa from my Cucumis, that she told me about the trick. I felt betrayed, bemused, and amused at the same time.
More recently, my mother-in-law prepared a delicious snake gourd sabzi when my wife and I visited her for the first time after our wedding. Only, I assumed it was cucumber, which was to my benefit. Had I known that it was snake gourd, I may not have enjoyed it at all, simply out of sheer bias. To be clear, I would still have eaten it, so as to leave a good first impression as an unassuming, undemanding son-in-law. I have not had the opportunity to eat snake gourd since, but I suspect I will enjoy it immensely now, just as I have begun to relish gilki, lauki and karela in different forms and formats.
Why do our loved ones insist on feeding us these cucurbits so adamantly, even going to risible extremes to do so? One reason that particularly rings true for my mother and grandmother is the wonderful, heavily storied medicinal properties of these gourds that are so commonplace in many Asian and African countries. Ayurvedic traditions, transferred from one generation to the next, have nurtured a culture of respect towards this family of vegetables in India. Indeed, culinary traditions have been born and boosted around their beneficial characteristics.
Intense debates about the scientific validity of these Ayurvedic traditions are routine occurrences even within India, and more and more scientists are now conducting primary research to provide scientific support to settle such debates. But having grown up seeing Ayurveda in action, I have never had second thoughts about the miraculous ability of gourds to manage certain diseases. As a 10-year-old, I remember gawking in awe (and suppressed disgust) whenever my diabetic maternal uncle would bite into raw bitter gourds or drink bitter gourd juice because this helped him keep his blood sugar levels in check. For the same reason, shallow-fried bitter gourds were the ultimate go-to meal for my maternal grandfather, also a diabetic.
In the last decade or so, such medicinal properties of gourds have been documented profusely, particularly in the form of narrative literature reviews that cite modern research as well as contemporary renditions of ancient texts (such as the Ayurveda). Not surprisingly, these works have primarily emerged from countries where gourds have long been a part of traditional medicine – such as China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. For example, Dhillon et al., a group of agriculture scientists from China, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Turkey, USA, and Vietnam, published a book chapter in 2017, parts of which discuss the medicinal properties of sponge, bitter, bottle, snake, wax, and ridge gourds. Similarly, in 2022, Mukherjee et al., a group of biotechnologists and pharmaceutical technologists from India, reviewed Ayurvedic texts as well as more recent primary research on the medicinal characteristics of the Cucurbitaceae family.
These documents make it abundantly clear that many Asian systems of traditional medicine, including Ayurveda, prescribe bottle gourd and bitter gourd to manage diabetes. Meanwhile, bottle gourd also finds use in Ayurvedic treatment of fever, cough, asthma, pain, poisoning, and ulcers. Bottle gourd is also used to formulate the Maha Visagarbha Taila, an oil which helps in the treatment of joint inflammation. Some studies discussed in the narrative review published by Mukherjee et al. have even shown that sponge gourd and bitter gourd can help in cancer treatment by reducing tumour size.
What makes these gourds even more mesmerising as medicinal agricultural products is that fruits as well as other plant parts (leaves, roots, seeds) bear significant medicinal properties. Take the sponge gourd, juice extracted from its leaves finds use in the treatment of conjunctivitis, oil extracted from its seeds can treat skin disorders, its roots can be an effective laxative, and its fruits are commonly used to treat jaundice.
Like many other approaches in traditional, complementary and alternative medicine, the medical benefits of these gourds require more scientific support from systematic biomedical and biochemical research. Primary scientific investigations of the medicinal properties of these gourds are generally sparse, and many publications still tend to document ancient traditions instead of primary research. Some recent scientific investigations have attempted to bridge this gap. In 2014, Priscilla et al. from Malaysia’s University Malaysia Kelantan conducted a study that investigated the anthelmintic (worm-killing) activity of bitter gourd extract in goats. Subsequently, Poolperm and Jiraungkoorskul, pathobiologists from Thailand’s Mahidol University, reviewed diverse primary research on the anthelmintic properties of bitter gourd. Overall, these studies have hailed bitter gourd as a potent anthelmintic agent, a boon for Asian countries where worm infestations are very commonly diagnosed.
There has also been an upsurge in biomedical research studies on cucurbitacins, which constitute a vast repertoire of bioactive compounds found in gourds (as well as many other plant families). These oxidized tetracyclic triterpenoids are believed to be responsible for many of the medicinal properties of gourds. In 2008, Tan et al., a primarily China-based group of drug research scientists, unveiled cucurbitacins as the molecular source of the antidiabetic properties of bitter gourd. In 2015, Kaushik et al. published a narrative review of primary research on the therapeutic relevance of cucurbitacins, highlighting the anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antidiabetic, and anti-atherosclerotic activities of these gourd-ly compounds. More recently, the China-based scientific group Huang et al. (2021) described the molecular mechanism by which cucurbitacins exert their anticancer behaviour. In 2023, Li et al. from China’s Weifang Medical University further reviewed numerous scientific reports highlighting the anticancer properties of cucurbitacins.
As an increasing amount of scientific research confirms the veracity of Ayurvedic texts and traditions and reveals new therapeutic benefits of the gourds of Asia, I cannot help but think how this evolving bridge between traditional medicine and contemporary medical research is a reflection of my own journey with gourds. I have begun to not only appreciate traditional gourd dishes but also love my culinary heritage so much more, actively making my ancestral past an indispensable part of my current life. Today, my family (myself included) celebrates gourds in various shapes and forms in appetizers, main dishes, as well as desserts, from koftas and bhajiyas (fritters) to stuffed parathas (stuffed flatbreads), from steamed dumplings to barfis (fudge-like desserts), from curries to shallow-fried veggies, from raitas (spiced yogurts) to sambar (southern Indian lentil soup).
Plus, my mom is always on the hunt for healthier and tastier gourd recipes that I would willingly cook and eat. My brother and I have been lab rats for the many experiments that she has performed with Indian gourd recipes over the years. I have found that cooking grated bottle gourd with besan (gram flour) works pretty well for me. As does the humble bottle gourd soup. More recently, I have become quite taken with these delicious steamed bottle gourd muthiyas (cutlets) that my mom made following an age-old recipe book.
My younger self would be shocked to know that the gourds that I once had a beef with have become something that I look for in every farmer’s market now. For their medicinal properties, yes, but also because there is this rush of nostalgia whenever I see them in the Indian grocery stores of the small US town where I live. On the rare occasion that my wife and I are able to find these gourds in the fresh produce section, I am immediately reminded of my grandmother and her brilliance, and my mother’s constant experimentation in the kitchen.
Ultimately, unimpeded nostalgia, active awareness of the medical benefits of these gourds, modern upgrades in family gourd recipes here and there, and my wife's incessant love for gilki, lauki, and karela have powerfully shaped my current eating system. I can only hope that picky eaters of my future generations can find similar reasons to continue to respect the mighty gourds for what they are – cornucopias chock-full of vitamins, antioxidants, and endless medicinal properties.
Dr. Anjaney Kothari is a freelance writer and researcher who likes to think that he has a
spiritual connection with food. After studying the ins and outs of the gastrointestinal system
during his Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering, Anjaney found his true professional calling in his
childhood hobby – writing. When he isn’t writing articles or discussing food recipes with his
wife, he can be found making paper crafts for his YouTube channel and binge-watching
MasterChef (also with his wife).
Sponge gourd – Luffa cylindrica
Bitter gourd – Momordica charantia
Bottle gourd – Lagenaria siceraria
Snake gourd – Trichosanthes cucumerina
Dhillon, N.P., Sanguansil, S., Singh, S.P., Masud, M.A.T., Kumar, P., Bharathi, L.K., Yetişir, H., Huang, R., Canh, D.X. and McCreight, J.D., 2017. Gourds: bitter, bottle, wax, snake, sponge and ridge. Genetics and Genomics of Cucurbitaceae, pp.155-172. URL: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/7397_2016_24
Huang, S., Cao, B., Zhang, J., Feng, Y., Wang, L., Chen, X., Su, H., Liao, S., Liu, J., Yan, J. and Liang, B., 2021. Induction of ferroptosis in human nasopharyngeal cancer cells by cucurbitacin B: molecular mechanism and therapeutic potential. Cell Death & Disease, 12(3), p.237. URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41419-021-03516-y
Kaushik, U., Aeri, V. and Mir, S.R., 2015. Cucurbitacins–an insight into medicinal leads from nature. Pharmacognosy reviews, 9(17), p.12. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4441156/
Li, Y., Li, Y., Yao, Y., Li, H., Gao, C., Sun, C. and Zhuang, J., 2023. Potential of cucurbitacin as an anticancer drug. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 168, p.115707. URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0753332223015056
Mukherjee, P.K., Singha, S., Kar, A., Chanda, J., Banerjee, S., Dasgupta, B., Haldar, P.K. and Sharma, N., 2022. Therapeutic importance of Cucurbitaceae: A medicinally important family. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 282, p.114599. URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S037887412100828X
Poolperm, S. and Jiraungkoorskul, W., 2017. An update review on the anthelmintic activity of bitter gourd, Momordica charantia. Pharmacognosy Reviews, 11(21), p.31. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5414453/
Priscilla, F.X., Amin, M.R. and Rahman, S., 2014. Comparative study of neem (Azadirachta indica), bitter gourd (Momordica charantia) extract as herbal anthelmintic and albendazole as chemical anthelmintic in controlling gastrointestinal nematodes in goats. IOSR Journal of Agriculture and Veterinary Science, 7(2), pp.33-37. URL: https://www.iosrjournals.org/iosr-javs/papers/vol7-issue2/Version-3/F07233337.pdf
Tan, M.J., Ye, J.M., Turner, N., Hohnen-Behrens, C., Ke, C.Q., Tang, C.P., Chen, T., Weiss, H.C., Gesing, E.R., Rowland, A. and James, D.E., 2008. Antidiabetic activities of triterpenoids isolated from bitter melon associated with activation of the AMPK pathway. Chemistry & Biology, 15(3), pp.263-273. URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1074552108000823