Sometimes friends ask me why I gave up on working in Europe and moved back to India. I find that if you tell the unvarnished truth, they laugh and give up. But it is true that I missed karela (Momordica charantia, aka bitter gourd), that warty bitter veggie that you see in the middle of the featured photo. There are relatively few domesticated plants, and like them, this one has been a great traveler: right across the world’s tropics. The bitter taste is a warning of toxicity of course, as some people who tried raw gourd smoothies in recent times found out the hard way. Across the world I see that it is most often fried. I remember from my childhood another preparation where it is boiled and mashed into rice and formed into balls (I can imagine a kombini in Japan stocking this as a quick lunchtime meal). It was always an addition, not the pride of the table, but its bitter taste runs like a glowing thread in my memories.
How did this bitter, warty fruit travel? Where was it first domesticated? Traditionally, the variety of gourds in India has been used to argue that gourds (family Cucurbitaceae) was domesticated in India. This has been borne out, and deeply nuanced, by a carefully sampled genetic analysis, published in 2008, which showed that modern gourds originated about 70 million years ago, during the Cretaceous, on the continental plate which was the progenitor of the continent of Asia, north of what was then the Tethys Ocean. 40-60 million years ago, during the Paleocene and Eocene, the family spread to proto-Africa and proto-South America, and was already established there before Madagascar and India began to separate out into their modern positions. About 30 million years ago, during the Oligocene, the family crossed the Atlantic again, into proto-South America, and across the Indian plate into the proto-Southeast Asia. This last branch included the genus Momordica. Around 10 million years ago, in the middle Miocene, there were repeated crossings from South America to Africa, and the ancestors of Oceania. A paper from 2010 drilled deeper into genus Momordica and verified that it had an African origin, being carried from there to India and Southeast Asia sometime around 15 million years ago. This deep history is consistent with the traditional human history of the karela being domesticated in India, and spreading across the tropics through trade in the last 10,000 years, and eventually calling me back to India.