Karela, or bitter gourd/melon, is an acquired taste. As far as I can tell this taste is acquired through the process of aging. It’s also not a candidate for winning any vegetable beauty contests—and its exterior (reminiscent of the hide of a chameleon that fell asleep on a bright green leaf) finds an echo in its interior, massive seeds and all. It’s eaten all over India but if you can find an Indian kid who willingly eats it you should next set out to look for Amelia Earhart’s plane. Its English name is not a misnomer: it is an extremely bitter vegetable, more bitter than anything else I’m aware of that is eaten as the principal component of a dish (methi/fenugreek seeds may be as or more bitter but they’re used sparingly). I am now closer to 50 than to 10 and I’ve only just barely begun to eat karela. And I know lots of Indian adults who still won’t eat it. That said, once you acquire the taste for it you may find yourself unable to stop eating it.
At least that’s been the case for me. Though I should add that I only eat it in the form it takes in this recipe: shallow-fried in mustard oil till the edges (or the interior “rims”, more accurately) begin to crisp up. It’s an exceedingly simple recipe that only requires you to get over your suspicion of a vegetable whose looks accurately predict its taste. The good news is that the bitterness can be mitigated a bit both by leaving it coated with salt and turmeric for a while before you cook it, and in this case, additionally by the crisp-frying process. If you were to deep-fry it to a chip you could probably render it even less bitter but you might lose many of its purported health/nutritional benefits. At least, I want to believe that something so bitter must be good for you. (I do also wonder how something that tastes this bitter ever entered the human diet—must have been out of desperation.)
- 2-3 pods of karela/bitter melon, ends removed, sliced into thin disks and seeds removed.
- A large pinch of salt.
- 1/2 tspn turmeric powder
- 3-4 tblspns of oil, preferably mustard oil
- Half a lime (optional)
- A pinch of chaat masala (optional)
- Toss the disks of karela with the salt and turmeric and leave aside on a plate for an hour or so
- Heat the oil in the largest flat skillet you have. If using mustard oil allow it to smoke a little and then reduce the heat a little.
- Add all the karela, in batches if necessary, such that one side of each piece is completely on the hot oil.
- Fry for 2-3 minutes and once the bottom is beginning to turn golden brown, flip each piece with tongs and fry the other side as well for another 2-3 minutes.
- Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon, squeeze the lime over if you like and sprinkle the chaat masala over if you’re using it.
- Eat with dal and rice.
- You can find Karela easily in any South Asian grocery; I’ve also seen it in grocery stores catering to South East Asian customers. Look for pods that are vibrant in colour and that are not soft or spongy at all.
- The plant is native to India, I believe—the Chinese bitter melon is a variant and is thought to have gone to China from India.
- Karela, called korola in Bengal, is a part of a number of Bengali dishes and is often featured in traditional Bengali meals which have a bitter course early in the meal. Bengalis also call it uchhe—from what I can tell this is the name for a smaller variant.
- The seeds are not attractive but they’re edible. I tend to remove them (though not always). If you find that step to be a hassle and you’re not seed-phobic, don’t bother.
- Mustard oil sold in the US is labeled “for external use only”; I’ve read different reasons for why this is the case is but I disregard it anyway. You can find it in any South Asian store or even on Amazon (sold as a beauty product). If you don’t want to risk it just use any oil that can take high heat.
- You could, if you like, add a small pinch of chilli powder along with the salt and turmeric.
- The lime and chaat masala are to further distract from the bitterness but are really not necessary.