Take the Bite out of Bitter
Growing up in India, karela was a standard staple served for meals as a vegetable with our rice, lentil and roti lunches. As a child, I’d cringe at its bitter taste, and yet liked how it was crunchy and sweet from the caramelization. I’d fish for the darker pieces that promised a more intense sweet and bitter juxtaposition on my palate.
Mummy and Grandma made them stir-fried or stuffed, and then later as an adult, my sister’s stuffed karela surpassed those of my childhood. Now that I cook them too, I love them thinly sliced and broiled to a candy-like crispness, almost like a bitter bark.
I’ve also had them fried like chips, dried and salted as a snack and even as a pickle with Indian spices.
The bitter melon has several health benefits and is commonly used as a vegetable in India, China, Japan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Every year, the Mentor Flats Farms stand carries the Chinese variety of the karela, the ku-gua. This variety is less spiky and longer and paler green in comparison to its Indian brother, which is short and spiky like a crocodile’s skin and very dark green.
Surprisingly, demoing this vegetable encouraged many conversations at the market, I met families who’d eaten this vegetable as kids, like myself, and could not wait for their children to try them too, or tell their parents about the demo. And my hat’s off to the curious and the brave, who gave it a try and a thumbs up, perhaps heading over to the cookies and brownies after ‘chatting’ with me.
The recipe below is for the pan-fried version I made at the market; see instructions for adjustments if you’d like to broil them like I do at home.
Makes Approx. 3 cups (serves 4)
2 long sized bitter melons (or 4 medium-sized)
2 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. red chili powder
1/8 tsp. turmeric powder
2 tbsp. maple syrup / raw cane sugar / agave nectar / raw gur (an Indian raw sugar)
1½ tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. chopped garlic scape or ½ tsp. grated garlic clove
- Wash and thinly slice the bitter melon into round slices
- Place them in a colander and salt, mix and let the melon slices sit for about 15-20 minutes
- Squeeze the melon slices and drain all the liquid, draining out some of the bitterness out
- Heat a large pan with the olive oil, when heated, drop the garlic scape and stir-fry for a couple of minutes
- Then add the drained bitter melon slices to the hot pan and stir to coat all the slices in the oil and spread out, so that each slice touches the pan if possible, turn the heat to medium-high
- Let the slices brown a little on one side before stirring again, about 3-5 minutes
- Add the chili and turmeric powders and stir, spread again and let it brown
- After about 10 minutes of stir-frying, add your choice of sugar and stir to coat
- Let the slices sit and caramelize for about 5 minutes on each side
- Taste for sweetness, salt and spices, adjust as needed and crisp the melon to desired degree
To make these in an oven
- Lay out each melon slice on a sheet pan and drizzle with oil, spices and a drop of agave nectar over each slice; skip the garlic to avoid the acrid burnt taste from being broiled
- Place pan under the broiler at 500F for about 5 -7 minutes and then flip the slices to cook the second side
- Remove from under the broiler after another 5-7 minutes when crisp
- Cooking these under the broiler significantly reduces the amount of oil and sugar used, and the overall cooking time as well
Serve warm with rice and lentils or naan bread and a cucumber yogurt raita (similar to a tzatziki sauce)