Until recently, bitter foods have gotten a bad rap. Given that they are sorely missing from the American diet, and because of their health benefits, there is an emerging interest in eating foods such as dandelion greens, fresh fenugreek or bitter melons. Even I detested karela (bitter melons) as a kid. But once I learned how to cook them by balancing their flavor in small portions, I understood their magic. Almost every dish I create has either a prominent or underlying note of bitterness to add complexity and depth to flavor. You can also follow one of my cardinal cooking principles: When in doubt, add more ghee! Bitter melon in particular is best eaten in small portions with caramelized onions, sweet potato or sweet corn to offset its bitterness. The basil leaves here make for a fragrant finish — but add them just before serving.
makes ~4 servings
4-5 karelas (approximately 1 pound)
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons of ghee or olive oil
1 teaspoon of mustard seeds
1 cup minced onion
1 large sweet potato, roughly 2-3 cups of ½ inch pieces
1 teaspoon of turmeric
1 serrano, minced
1 cup chopped basil leaves
Slice the karela in half lengthwise and then into thin half-wheels. Sprinkle with salt and let the karela rest for 20-30 minutes (this mellows out the bitterness).
Meanwhile, in a wok or a thick-bottomed frying pan, heat up the ghee or olive oil until just shy of smoking and add the mustard seeds. They will pop and sizzle — almost immediately add the minced onions and sweet potato. Cook at high heat for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently, until they have a little bit of caramel color.
Add the sliced karela and continue cooking at high heat for another 2-3 minutes. If the mixture appears dry, add a tablespoon or two of water. Cover the pan, turn the heat down and let the mixture cook for 3-5 minutes. The karela and sweet potato should both be tender by now. Stir in the chopped basil leaves just before serving.
ideas / variations
Indian bitter melons (with the stippled skins) and the Chinese bitter melons (with the smooth tops) both work well with this recipe.
A sabzi is essentially a prepared vegetable dish, usually eaten with a roti, rice or another kind of Indian bread. You could also make a taco out of it.
If the karela is extra bitter, sprinkle a tablespoon of honey or sugar on the sabzi just before serving.