This crunchy, rich curry is a great vegan accompaniment to another Indian mainstay. Karela is a common ingredient in Asian cooking, but due to its lack of availability and bitter taste, not an incredibly popular ingredient in America’s Asian restaurants. “I’ll have the bitter melon, the chicken’s feet and the pig intestine,” is probably not what you’d normally hear ordered at a restaurant in these fair states (although maybe it should).
Karela is the Hindi word for bitter melon, which is believed to be good for diabetics and for the prevention of cancer. There are varieties grown throughout Asia that look and taste slightly different: the Chinese variety tends to be longer and look more like a wrinkly cucumber, while the Indian varieties look like a warty pickle.
I’ve found that many Asian cultures find that bitter foods are supposed to be healthy; who am I to argue with 5 or 6,000 years of recorded history and wisdom (or the Journal of Cancer Research, which claims that bitter melon kills cancer cells or inhibits their growth)?
But enough about health; bitter melon was submitted as a Twitter challenge! So we’re taking that challenge and eating it!
The Chinese and SE Asians tend to revel in the bitter melon’s bitterness. They will generally core out the melon, sometimes heat it but generally fill it with some sort of meat-based filling. In the more southern regions of Asia, such as India and Malaysia, they have a different take: they make a stir fry or a curry out of it.
Indian cooking seems a bit scary at first, but much like with any other cooking, it simply requires a basic assortment of appropriate spices (asafoetida, gram flour, dhal, turmeric, garam masala curry powder, black onion (kalongi) seeds, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom), some cookware (like a stove-top pressure cooker which cooks rice in 5 minutes) and a willingness to figure out what some of the Tamil, Hindi and other words mean (when I looked up a few recipes, I was like “What the hell is besan?”). Once you get over this, much of Indian cooking is fairly simple: it’s generally oil, spices, stir frying things and sometimes braising things in coconut milk or cream. Not a lot of rocket science happening here.
Finding the ingredients in America may be just as hard as figuring out what you want to cook and how, unless you live in an incredibly large city populated with Indians or Chinese. The Indian populations and stores are far west from here, so I found a decent selection of most of what I needed at my local high-end, organic-laden grocery. For the karela, I found Sing Gua and Ku Gua (bitter melon in Mandarin), more the Chinese and Vietnamese varieties. I couldn’t find the Indian variety at all. But this is about adventure, is it not? So I’m setting out to make two batches: one of just kerala (Ku Gua), and one including the Sing Gua. The most difficult thing for me to find was fresh curry leaf—I finally found some at a Japanese market.
1 lbs bitter melon
1/2 bunch coriander (cilantro) leaves
2 tsp Coriander powder
1/2 bunch curry leaves
2 tsp ginger garlic paste (or make your own in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle)
1 onion, chopped
4 Serrano peppers (deseeded for mild, leave the seeds in if you want it hot; I deseeded mine)
2 Tbsp oil
2 tsp red chili powder
Salt to taste
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp turmeric (I actually use fresh turmeric that I get from a co-op. To prepare, grind in a mortar and pestle and then scoop out with your teaspoon. Fresh turmeric has a nice, clean, slightly bitter flavor.)
1 tsp urad dal (black lentils) (I couldn’t find these, so looked up a substitute: mung beans)
Cut the karela into slices about ¼” thick (the Chinese variety I had required me to slice lengthwise and core out the seeds first). Put the karela into the bowl and add turmeric and a pinch of salt; let this sit for 10 minutes and you can squeeze the juice out (and drink it if you like bitter). In the saucepan, put 1 Tbsp of oil and warm on high. Add the dal, onion, peppers, curry leaves and sauté with a pinch of turmeric and ½ tsp of ginger garlic paste for a couple of minutes. Add the kerala, lower heat to medium and sauté for 2 minutes. Add coriander powder and red chili powder. Cover and cook for 5-10 minutes. Remove the lid and cook until crispy and brown. Add 1 tsp of sugar and continue to cook. Once browned fully, add fresh cilantro to finish.
Serve with rice or other Indian dishes—in my attempt, this came out as a very vegetal, slightly bitter dish. Interestingly enough, the Sing Gua/Ku Gua mix was more bitter than just the straight bitter melon version. Also, I forgot the sugar and couldn’t seem to get the heat high enough to make it crispy like I wanted. Nevertheless, it was an excellent accompaniment to the shark curry that I made (next recipe for you guys), which was very mild and mellow. The heat on this was perfect for my sore throat, not too much, but noticeable. When I reheated it in a skillet, this time with sugar, it was even better.