Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
Do you know what are these are: bitter gourd, winged beans, and vegetable pear? You may not be familiar with them, but when you hear their local names – ampalaya, sigarillas, and sayote, respectively – you will definitely say, yes, I know them.
But what most people don’t know is that these hanging vegetables – as they are called since all three are creeping plants – are not only good sources of nutrients and vitamins, they are also good for your health?
Let’s start with ampalaya, which is touted to be an ally of those with diabetes. During the time of Dr. Francisco Duque as Health Secretary, a circular was issued reinstating ampalaya as a scientifically validated herbal medicinal plant that can lower elevated blood sugar levels. In 2003, then Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit classified ampalaya as a “folklorically-validated herbal medicinal plant.”
The reclassification came about in view of recent clinical evidence on the efficacy of ampalaya in capsule or tea form as a useful dietary adjunct in the treatment of Type 2 (non-insulin-dependent) diabetes.
The health department cited a 10-year study that found out that the vegetable can effectively regulate blood sugar in the same way as a regular anti-diabetes drug. “We compared ampalaya leaves with an anti-diabetes drug, and we found out that ampalaya has the same effect on the patient. It means the action of ampalaya on blood sugar is equivalent to the action of the medicine,” the Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Health Care (PITAHC) said in a statement.
Dr. Guia Ciria Abad, immediate past president of the Association of Municipal Health Officers of the Philippines, advised patients to consult their doctor before stopping the intake of their regular prescribed medicines and just take ampalaya. “Even if you feel good after taking ampalaya, go to your doctor for regular check-up and it is up to your doctor to reduce the dosage of your prescribed medicines,” she said. “Ampalaya can be potent, but it can also give you a shock.”
Unknowingly, ampalaya is one of the best sources of Vitamin C. “One ampalaya fruit contains 174 percent of the average daily requirement for vitamin C,” livestrong.com says. “Vitamin C has multiple functions in the body. It is a key factor in the synthesis of the protein known as collagen, a major component of the connective tissue, and also is a powerful antioxidant. Like other antioxidants, it helps safeguard the body’s cells from damage from the dangerous free radicals believed to play a role in chronic disease.”
The bitter taste of the ampalaya fruit has been the distinguishing factor from the rest of the fruits with medicinal value, and this is due to the presence of a substance known as momorcidin.
As the bitter fruit is famous for its many medicinal attributes, there are also other unique ways of preparing mixtures, drinks, or solutions made from ampalaya. Those with cough, fever, worms, and diarrhea are advised to drink a spoonful of grounded and juiced ampalaya leaves every day. For other health conditions, the fruit and leaves can both be juiced and taken orally. For wounds, burns, and other skin diseases, the fruit’s warmed leaves may be applied to the affected area.
Sigarillas is described as “a supermarket on the stalk.” It produces pea-like beans with four winged edges. Almost every part of this unique plant is tasty and edible. The fresh young pods are similar to green beans, with a chewy texture and a slightly sweet taste. When cooked, the leaves taste like spinach and the flowers like mushrooms. The firm-fleshed roots have a nutty flavor. This remarkable bean could become one of the most important crops for underdeveloped countries because it offers a high source of protein.
Flowers have a sweet taste because of the nectar they contain. When steamed or fried, they have the color and consistency of mushrooms. When lightly cooked, they make an attractive garnish. The dried seeds can be useful as flour and also to make a coffee-like drink. When fried or baked, winged bean seeds make a delicious nut-like snack.
The vines produce starchy underground tubers. In the Philippines, however, the tubers are relatively smaller, and they are not eaten. The tubers contain 12-15 percent protein (2 to 4 times higher than that of potato and eight times more than that of cassava), 0.5 to 1.1 percent fat, and 27.2 to 30.5 percent carbohydrate. The tubers are peeled after boiling, fried, or baked before use.
Sean Adams, information chief of the United States Department of Agriculture, reported that winged bean has high levels of proteins called lectins, which are used as diagnostic tools in medical research because they bind to certain blood cells. “Winged beans,” he added, “also contain erucic acid (an antitumor medication) and polyunsaturated fatty acids that can be used to treat acne and eczema.”
Although most people are familiar only with the sayote fruit, the root, stem, seeds, and leaves are all edible. Oftentimes, sayote is called a poor man’s vegetables due to the many uses of its different parts.
The fruit does not need to be peeled and can be eaten raw in salads. Cooked or raw, it has a very mild flavor by itself and is commonly served with seasonings (e.g., salt, butter, and pepper in Australia) or in a dish with other vegetables and/or flavorings. Filipinos peel sayote, cut them into thick slices, and then cook with meat or shrimps.
In Mexico, some people found other and more imaginative uses for sayote – aside from boiling, they make them into candies or slices and fry for table use. In the Philippines, some candy manufacturers and food processors have found the vegetable an ideal and low-cost base for their various products. It can also be used to make catsup.
Unknown to many, the sayote is also a medicinal plant. The leaves and fruit have diuretic, cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory properties, and a tea made from the leaves has been used in the treatment of arteriosclerosis and hypertension and to dissolve kidney stones.
Due to its purported cell-regenerative properties, it is believed as a contemporary legend that sayote caused the mummification of people from the Colombian town of San Bernardo who extensively consumed it. The very well preserved skin and flesh can be seen in the mummies today.
What is in a sayote fruit? Upon analysis, its edible portion per 100 grams gives 94 percent moisture, 19 percent calories, 0.4-gram protein, 0.1 grams fat, 4.9 grams carbohydrates, and 0.6-gram fiber. Also found in the fruit in small amounts are calcium, sodium, thiamine, vitamin A, riboflavin, ascorbic acid, and niacin.