Have you come across this spiky, green, intriguing fruit, which belongs to the same plant family as watermelon, cucumber and pumpkin? It goes by the name of bitter gourd – in punjabi it’s callled ‘karele’. It’s one of those dishes I adore, not least for its bittersweet taste, but also for being a dish which is tailored to the tastes of each family. I find it refreshing that every elder I’ve spoken to, cooks this dish in their own unique style according to family traditions. There’s no sitting on the fence with karele – you love them, or you don’t. It would probably lose on the popularity score at your local curry house – but it’s a rare gem. Recipes for karele have been passed down generations and it sits proudly at the family dinner table of those who cook it.
My dad detested bitter gourd until I cooked it for him using the recipe below, so don’t be put off by it’s rather intimidating appearance! The spikiness is peeled off in this recipe, and once cooked thoroughly, it softens up nicely. True to its name, it has a slightly bitter taste, which is mellowed with the right cooking conditions.
Several elder women inspired this recipe, but primarily Sheila – the dadima who features in my cookbook. Different dadimas shared with me their secret tips to keep the bitter taste at bay. Make sure you don’t skip the steps below:
- Use brown sugar and mango powder to add a little sweet and sour flavour. (If you have neither of these, you can use a little cinnamon powder instead. You can also substitute mango powder for pomegranate powder).
- Peel the bitter gourd to remove most of the spikiness.
- Leave the fruit in lemon juice and salt before cooking to help draw out the bitterness.
If you’ve never made karele before, start off with a small quantity – three or four fruits. It’s more of an accompaniment than a main dish, and because of its bold flavour and acquired taste, it is best enjoyed in small portions. Serve karele with milder flavours which won’t overpower its taste – mung daal, a yoghurt dish, and a few rotis make a great combo.
Recipe: (also on pages 157-159 in dadima’s cookbook)
Serves 4 as a side dish
3 karele (bitter gourds)
Juice of half a lemon
1 and a half teaspoons salt, or to taste
Vegetable oil for shallow frying, plus 2 tablespoons oil for cooking
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 onion, sliced to medium thickness
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
20g ginger, peeled and grated
2 green finger chillies, finely chopped (or to taste)
1 teaspoon turmeric powder (haldi)
Half teaspoon mango powder (amchoor)
1 teaspoon brown sugar
120g plum tomatoes, blended
Three quarter teaspoon garam masala
- Prepare the karele: Lightly peel off the spiky parts of the karele skin using a potato peeler (exert just enough pressure to take off the spikes). Slice each karela through the middle. Use a teaspoon or knife to scoop out the seeds and flesh. Slice each half down the centre. Cut into strips of approximately 2 inches and transfer to a bowl.
- Add the lemon juice and around 1 teaspoon of salt to the bowl. Stir well. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for 2-3 hours, or overnight if you have time.
- Heat the oil for shallow frying. Add the karele and cook for 10-15 minutes over a medium heat, stirring regularly. They should be slightly crispy, but easily pierced with a knife. Once cooked, transfer to a plate and set aside whilst you make the tharka (onion masala base).
- In the same frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil if needed (depending on amount of grease left). Add the cumin seeds, allow to sizzle, then stir in the onions.
- Cook the onions until light brown, stirring regularly.
- Add the garlic, ginger and green chillies and cook for 1 minute.
- Stir through the haldi, mango powder, remaining salt, and brown sugar. Cook until the onions are medium brown, stirring regularly.
- Add the tomatoes and stir until the tharka is ready. This is when the consistency thickens and oil bubbles form around the mixture.
- Stir through the cooked karele. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Stir through garam masala and serve hot.
All photos by Dale Gent & Tim Green (finished dish)