Because of a nagging concience, or perhaps from the suggestion of concerned friends, I decided to move on to a fairly healthy dish for this post. Let me tell you quite bluntly though: I do not need to be persuaded in the least to cook a dish using bitter melon(bitter gourd, karela, karathe, mara, etc). This is one of my most favorite of vegetables, and my cravings for it are quite intense when I have gone without it for a while. So intense, that I find great difficulty in thinking of other foods until this craving is met.
Last year, I tried growing my own so that I would have a steady supply. I wasn’t quite sure how this plant would fare in the temperate zone that I live in. Added to this doubt was the fact that I started the seeds 2 weeks after the usual planting time, so I told myself that at the least I would have some pretty vines to look at, and this was all I allowed myself to look forward to.
The seeds sprouted within a few days. I set to work constructing trellises of split cedar to serve as a vertical home for these little darlings as they grew. They soon developed into 5-inch plants and developed tendrils that daily I had to untangle from each other and coax onto the supports of the trellises. Another two weeks, and they were slowly winding their way upward…..and then, some inner clock mechanism seemed to strike noon: they franticly began scrambling their way all over everything possible: the trellises, the wall, each other, my tomatoes….(I was a little concerned about losing my cats) I measured a foot a day during this mad clamour! Then, little yellow flowers bloomed, and I began a search daily for female blossoms and was thrilled to find three! And these three I kept a very close eye on and watched them swell and mature. At that time, I was thankful that the One Who Creates had blessed me with enough for one dish. And this was at the height of summer… then, I noticed that hidden in green sanctums from the ground to the very peak of the garage that the trellies leaned upon, were more, many many more, tiny green fruits that became pluckable at the rate of about two or three a day….and the flowers kept blooming…..and I couldn’t keep up with them! I gave away what I could. I started storing some in the refrigerator, until the drawer was brimming with them, and they were nestled in baskets on the counter-top.
Thinking back now, I should have thought of freezing or drying them(thanks AMTP!), but I didn’t….and I needed a way of preserving these fast and now! I decided on kerela ka achaar. This is a favorite Indian preserve of this vegetable that, though I dearly love, I had never made myself. After a scurried internet research session, I found the basics for achaar-making. I chose to preserve most by the oil-cured method, as it lasts indefinitely at room temperature, and some found their way into a delicious fresh-eaten pickle recipe that I found on the website, Aayi’s Recipes(and thus began a food-blogging adventure). As much as I love to eat these pickles, several years will pass before I am able to consume what I have stored in my pantry. So, be prepared if you decide to grow these!
There are actually 45 different known species within the genus of Momordica, and the bitter melon/gourd, momordica charantia is but one of them. There are many medicinal applications of this vegetable from both Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine, and much research has delved into these properties, as well as into new ones that have been discovered or are involved in research at this time. (You may read more here if you wish, or search the internet for more information)
At one time, the Indian and Chinese varieties were thought to be separate species, but it appears, from my more recent readings, that they have been re-classified as phenotypes of the same species. They may be used interchangeably, and indeed, in my garden both varieties crossed freely producing fruits with characteristics of both. Many unusual cultivars are available as well, some of which are white in colour instead of green, some that are miniature-sized that can be used whole and stuffed for a unique presentation! The fruits are generally picked when young and firm, before the seeds mature and develop a bright red casing, eventually bursting forth from the pod at full maturity.
Science and achaar-making marathons aside, this dish is based almost solely on a Bengali recipe which I found in Madhur Jaffrey’s fine tome, World-of-the-east Vegetarian Cookbook. It makes use of the Bengali spice mixture, panch phoran, which lends a unique flavour to this dish. Over the course of perhaps 15 years of preparing this dish often in my kichen, I did a little tinkering with the original recipe and produced my own version which I present to you. I was influenced both by a Phillipino recipe for bitter melon paired with eggs, and my love of Thai cuisine with its affinity for roasted peanuts. In this dish, the soft eggs contrast with the crispness of the bitter melon and onions, and the crunch of fresh-roasted peanuts. I developed a pleasing colour combination that ought to include fresh red chiles(or red bell peppers/capsicum if you prefer it mild), but as I am currently not able to locate fresh red chiles right now, I have substituted 2 t of red chile-garlic paste, omitting the clove of garlic in lieu of this. I have used the Chinese type of bitter melon in this rendition of the recipe, but you may use either kind.
If your bitter melons have a white or pale green interior when cut open, do use the whole vegetable for this dish as the seeds are quite delicious. If they have turned red, then scrape out the seed cavity before proceeding; fish the seeds from their red jackets and add to the dish during cooking, if you are inclined.
4 t oil
a handful of raw peanuts/groundnuts, skins removed
a pinch of hing(optional)
1 1/2 t panch phoran(Bengali 5-spice mixture)
2 fresh red chiles(or to taste), sliced thinly
1 clove/flake of garlic, sliced thinly
3 medium-size onions, in 1/3″ slices
1/2 to 3/4 lb. of bitter melon(s)(1 large or two small chinese type, or 3-4 Indian type)
1)Rinse the bitter melon(s) well under running water, scrape any discoloured areas away with a knife if necessary. Trim off the stem end, and cut in half lengthwise. If you see any red, scrape out the seed cavity with a spoon, otherwise, slice into 1/3″ half-rings.
2)Put the sliced bitter melon into a bowl and cover with cold water. Sprinkle 2-3 t of salt over them and swish them around with your hand to dissolve the salt. Set aside for 2 hours. Drain through a colander and then pour them back into the bowl, cover with cold water, swish around, and then drain through the colander once again. Shake it a bit to remove the excess water and set aside. (see note at bottom of page)
3)Over a medium flame in a wok or kerai, heat 1 t of oil, add the peanuts and fry, stirring continuously until well-roasted and fragrant. Remove and set aside.
4)Take the eggs and beat lightly in a small bowl, add 1 T of water and a pinch of salt and blend. In the wok or kerai, heat 1 t oil over medium flame and add the beaten eggs, stirring once every 10 seconds until the eggs are set and scrambled. Remove to the bowl with the peanuts.
5)Heat the remaining 2 t of oil in the pan and add the panch phoran and hing(if using). Stir gently until the mustard seeds pop and then add the chiles and garlic, fry for a few seconds, and then add the sliced onions. Fry these, stirring continuously, for 2 minutes.
6)Add the drained bitter melon slices and continue frying for 4 minutes, add salt to taste(1/2 t) and mix well, frying for 1 minute more.
7)Add the reserved peanuts and eggs and fry, stirring, for 1 more minute. Check for done-ness: the onions and bitter melon should be thoroughly hot and still crispy. Turn off heat and keep stirring for 1 more minute. Check for salt.
Note—–>There are two methods of removing some of the bitterness. Both involve the use of salt. While one method is used above, the other is to simply salt the bitter melon pieces, let it stand in a bowl for 30 minutes to an hour, and squeeze out the bitter juices by using a cheesecloth or bare hands. While this method works excellently as well, and is best for pickle-making and achieving a chewy texture required in many recipes, as well as greater ease in frying brown and crispy, it is not the method of choice for this dish, where it is preferrable to somewhat retain the natural crispness and shape inherent in the fresh vegetable.
Some people prefer, because of taste preference, or because they feel that some of the vital nutrients may be lost, that the natural bitterness of this vegetable be left intact; if this is your wish, then this salting and rinsing step may be omitted entirely.