The humble bitter gourd makes a tasty dish. Vasundhara Chauhan explains how
Menus don’t change. I remember my grandfather telling us how, in the Government College hostel in Lahore, the boys would ask kitchen staff what was cooking, always, in summer, to be answered, to their disgust, with ‘kreletindedal’. Karele, tinde, dal, as one word. This was at the turn of the century – the twentieth, not twelve years ago. And today in my home the same menu crops up at least a couple of times a month. We love to spout Ayurveda and blood purification theories, but the truth is, karela, Momordica charantia, is seasonal; it grows in summer, so that’s when we eat it.
In Bengal summer is heralded with korola bhaja, fried karela, or shukto, a dish of mixed vegetables, one of which is karela. I think that, particularly in the North, we usually cook it with so many spices that, along with its bitterness, it brings a change of flavour to the same-old ghiya-tori-tinda.
Although it probably originated in India, there’s a word for it in English: bitter gourd or cucumber. Like both, karela is a member of the cucurbit family, but is neither a true gourd nor a true cucumber.
Despite the tradition, cooking and enjoying it only comes with age. ‘Acquired’ taste puts it mildly, and cooking it is a production. Tradition says that karelas must be washed, scraped and salted heavily, then left to sweat for several hours – possibly in the sun – and lose some bitter juice. Likewise the scraped skin. Next, a complicated stuffing of the scrapings and finely chopped onions is sauted with the spices of aam ka achar and filled laboriously into the squeezed, slit and hollowed karelas. At this point cooked qeema, my father’s favourite, can replace the vegetarian stuffing. Then the stuffed karelas are trussed tightly with string and fried in sarson ka tel. This dish – which could be passed off as roasted baby mice and exported to the Far East – meanwhile has sucked up oil, bits of stuffing have leaked out and gotten scorched, and the house is smelling so much that the neighbours know what your menu is.
Some breaks with tradition make cooking stuffed karelas a little easier. The ‘sweating’ time is reduced simply by boiling a large pan of water with a few spoons of salt and simmering the karela for a minute or so. The salt draws out much of the bitterness and the boiling water cooks the karelas till they’re half tender. Frying them long enough to cook them through makes the texture leathery and the colour slate. The scraped skin, too, loses bitterness in a few seconds of being plunged in the pan of hot water.
Another departure on the same lines is the method of preparing the karelas to be fried crisp. The old way is to slice karela thinly, salt and sun it, wait a few hours, squeeze and fry till crisp. The shortcut of blanching in brine works, but the trouble is that it never gets really crisp without dredging in some kind of flour.
In Odisha they sprinkle the slices with rice flour. I do it with besan, chickpea flour. Yesterday Vinita, my neighbour and grower of the best vegetables, sent across a basket of fresh, deep green karelas.
They were too many to eat before they started yellowing – so we made some stuffed, which will keep a few days in the fridge, and the rest were blanched and frozen; all we have to do is sprinkle them with besan and shallow fry as a crisp accompaniment to a rice-and-curry meal.
Stuffed Bitter Gourd
- 12 small or medium karelas
- 3 large onions n 2 tbsp sarson ka tel (mustard oil) and 3-4 tbsp sarson ka tel (for frying)
- 1-2 tbsp chickpea flour (besan)
- 1 tbsp old aam ka achar masala OR a combination of:
- 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds (methi dana)
- 1/2 tsp nigella (kalonji)
- 1 tsp fennel (saunf)
- 1/4 tsp turmeric powder (haldi)
- 1 tsp red chilli powder Wash and wipe karelas.
With a sharp paring knife, scrape off ridged skin and keep aside. Slit karelas lengthwise without separating into halves. Scoop out seeds with a teaspoon. Discard or grind seeds coarsely. Half fill a large pan with water. Bring to a boil and slide in whole karelas. Lower heat and simmer till almost tender, about a minute or two. Remove karelas with a slotted spoon and drain in a colander. Bring the same water to a boil again, add scraped skin for half a minute, then pour out into a sieve. Let whole karelas and scrapings both cool to room temperature and squeeze out water.
Peel onions and chop fine. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a heavy bottomed frying pan and saute methi dana, kalonji and saunf. (If using aam ka achar masala, add later, after onions and skin-scrapings have been fried.) Add onions and salt and cook on medium heat until golden brown. Stir in scraped karela skin and brown gently, stirring often. Mix in haldi and red chilli powder. (If using aam ka achar masala, add now and keep on low heat for a few minutes.) Remove from heat, and, when cooler, fill into karelas with a teaspoon.
Make a thick paste of besan and water and apply on slit. Heat remaining mustard oil a flat pan and lower karelas in, besan-side first. When besan is golden brown, the opening is sealed. Reduce heat to medium and allow karelas to turn light brown, turning occasionally to make sure that they are cooked all around.
The writer is a food writer based in New Delhi, India.