Native to tropical Asia, Africa and Caribbea, and found usually in Asian markets, bitter melon or bitter gourd is not everyone’s cup of tea. Wonder why? Think bitter. Seriously bitter. With a lingering flavor. Yes, true to its name, the alarming bitter taste and smell is the main drawback for haters, not the bumpy green skin. Due to its unappealing flavor, bitter melon is more confined to its roots of origin—global cooks don’t see much of this fruity vegetable, or for that matter, know of its existence. Known about as pavakka or kaipakka in Malayalam, and karela in Hindi and Urdu, it is commonly used in Indian and Pakistani cooking.
At the term karela, my thoughts drift to some of the most wonderful summer afternoons and lunchtimes with colleagues—lost memories of few summers past. My dear friends Tancy, Nadine, and I were were at lunch on a busy work day when the guy seated next to me at the table asked quizzically, ‘Where are you from?’ Feeling very gauche, I kept it brief and replied, ‘Kerala.’ He turned to look at me and probed softly ‘Karela?’ Those at the table chuckled in amusement, while someone explained the difference between karela and Kerala to this person of Tunisian origin. I still smile in reminiscence of those times.
Not many people have developed a taste and appreciation for bitter melon, which historically has been valued for its healing properties. It is an excellent source of antioxidants, antimutagen and phenolic compounds, plus low in calories. Back home, bitter melon juice is used as an effective cure for diabetes—one of the most noted of its medicinal properties.
More of an acquired taste, I’ve personally never liked karela and used to avoid this veggie until I walked down the aisle and realized that my husband adores this bitterness. Because of its bold flavors there’s only one way it can be tackled in my dictionary—paired with oodles of tamarind and enough chili. That’s right. Assertive flavors like sour and spicy help tame the harshness of the melon’s natural bitterness. Result? Bitter, tart, spicy and salty—I’m certainly not complaining. Oh, other than the curried version, we also enjoy deep-fried melon—both dried and fresh, and heavily seasoned with spices.
This curry is incredibly simple to make—it’s as easy as tossing a bunch of ingredients into the pot and letting it simmer away while you listen to your favorite tunes on ipod. No laundry list of ingredients, or labor-intensive steps like sautéing in oil, and grinding ingredients to a paste. The key ingredients—thinly sliced melon, onion, tomato, chili and tamarind—are cooked for about half an hour until the veggies are tender and the bitterness is drowned out by other prominent flavors. Garnished with mustard seeds spluttered in hot oil, the flavors are so good, anyone with an acquired palate will simply love it.
While selecting bitter melon, choose the pale green to white ones for a milder taste, as opposed to the dark green ones which are much more bitter—different varieties differ in their bitterness. Further, blanching the veg in boiling water for few minutes and draining away the juices also helps reduce the unappealing flavor.
Generous amount of tamarind is used in this recipe—adjust measures according to sourness of the melon. These days I simply pick up a jar of tamarind paste from the stores instead of going through the traditional chore of soaking the pods in water and extracting the pulp.
Pavakka Mulakittadu—Sour and Spicy Bitter melon Curry—Karela from Kerala
Prep+cooking: 40 min
3 cups bitter gourd, finely sliced
2 medium red onions, halved and finely sliced
2 medium tomatoes, diced small
3-4 green chilies, slit lengthwise
15 curry leaves, torn, plus extra sprig for tempering
2 ½ to 3 tablespoons tamarind paste, or to taste (I used Priya tamarind paste)
3 ¾ cups water, divided
2 ½ teaspoons Kashmiri chili powder
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
salt, to taste
1 tablespoon oil
½ teaspoon black mustard seeds
2 dry red chilies, broken
To prep the melon, trim the ends off and halve each lengthwise. Scoop out seeds and spongy insides; discard. Cut the halved melons into thin slices.
Meanwhile, dissolve tamarind pate in ¾ cup warm water; set aside.
Put bitter melon, onion, tomato, green chili, curry leaf, tamarind water, remaining water and salt in a medium pot (I prefer cooking in a clay pot). Bring to boil over medium-high heat. Then tip in ground chili and turmeric and cook until vegetables soften, and liquid reduces to a thick sauce, about 25-30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
Finally, heat oil in a small skillet until shimmering. Add mustard seeds and cook until fragrant and sizzling, about 10 seconds. Then stir in broken dry red chilies and curry leaves; quickly remove from heat. Pour the spice-infused oil over the curry, stir, and serve warm scooped up with plain rice.