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Thursday tutorials: Call me melon...

Taiwanese white bitter melon

Run this thought experiment in your head.. Ready? think of the first taste that you associate with the following word.. MELON
Bitter Melon (Indian Variety) flower and fruit.

If you said sweet you're probably in the majority. If you said bitter,  your brain process runs along the lines described by the C.J Peters of the the book 'The Virus Hunter' and, upon hearing hoofbeats, you think zebra instead of horses, & you would be absolutely on the dot..I'm referring to the fruit known scientifically as Mormodica charantia, the Bitter melon (a.k.a bitter gourd, karela, carilla, kugua).
Growing up, I absolutely hated the days when this was made at home. After all, bitter is a taste confined to the back of ones tongue & indicative of toxic poisons. Acceptance became rapid after my first rotation at NYU school of medicine with Dr. Slyvia Lee-Huang. She was then working on discovering anti-HIV properties of compounds extracted from the seeds of the bitter melon, in particular a protein called MAP-30.

Well, when you discover that something that has been touted as being 'good for you'  is accredited with such stellar properties you either a. Get COMPLETELY turned off, or b. meekly give it the grudging admiration its due.
  Given its bitterness, the vegetable has long been associated, in traditional medicine, with warding of Diabetes, Anyone afflicted or related to someone who is will, in high probability, regale you of an experience of having to drink a karela extract first thing in the morning. These grandmothers remedies have been scientifically verified widely and in addition, there is even a correlation between karela and its  role in lowering adiposity, better known as F.A.T!!

How much better can this bit of bitter get? Unfortunately, the vegetable is practically unheard of outside Asian cuisine (I use the term loosely to incorporate, Indian, chinese, japanese, phillipino...), In fact one of the episodes from Food Networks show Chopped, featured this as an ingredient & the contestants had little clue what to do with it.. (One even sliced it into paper thin strips & served it RAW over a salad!). The vegetable comes in three varieties, the Indian bitter melon, which has these spines that usually get peeled off (kinda reminds you of an alligator, in fact, I remember  every school exhibit featuring food sculpture with at least one green karela crocodile!), the larger & fleshier Chinese variety which is much milder, and the equally fleshy taiwanese white variety, which looks so gorgeous but can be really bitter.

The Chinese variety of bitter melon

I could go on & on about all the listed information regarding the super healing properties of bitter melon, but I'd risk sounding like a written disclaimer of all those snake oil supplements they peddle on TV through those infomercials..
One of the best tasting memories I have about bitter melon was this dish that I had in New Delhi at my aunt's place. Her cook Mahesh, hailed from the mountainous terrain of Himachal Pradesh and would whip up this amazing semi dry vegetable subzee with karela & panfried potatoes, sweet and tangy from the pomegranate powder with the slightest hint of bitter from the karela whose bitterness had been almost leached out completely by rubbing it with salt. As I was about to attempt combining spices to try and replicate this, my peripheral vision zoomed in on a ziploc bag of an amazing spice blend that I recently fell in love with..Za'atar. Using this yielded a completely new and fabulous perspective to a vegetable that really has to fight to get its due.

Za'atar is a middle eastern spice blend primarily consisting of oregano, thyme, sesame seeds & sumac.  Variations to the blend and the proportions thereof are characteristic of the various region in the middle east that make & use Za' atar. It tastes great whether you simply sprinkle it on toast, yogurt or liberally incorporate it into Pizza dough to make Focaccia.. Try to pick up a bag if you can, you'll thank me for the suggestion!

Panfried potato & bittermelon with Za'atar and dried pomegranate. 

Ingredients: (serves 2)

1 large Idaho potato
1/2 a Chinese bitter melon/karela (~ 5 inches)
1 small onion. sliced thinly or diced fine
1/3 cup canola oil
1-2 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon Za' atar
1 teaspoon dried pomegranate powder
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder or red chilli powder (as per taste)
A pinch of sugar
1 tablespoon lime or lemon juice
sprig of mint for finishing & garnish.

Scrub, peel and cut the potato in half. Cut further into wedges.

Cut and discard the pointed end of the bitter melon. Cut in half length wise and scoop out the seeds. Cut the outer part into sticks about 1 1/2 inches in length. Add salt to the karela adn allow to rest for about 1/2 hr. When sufficient water has leached out from the vegetable. Rinse the salt thoroughly and pat dry.

Heat oil in a skillet and pan fry the potatoes in batches till golden brown. remove and set on paper towels to drain excess oil. In the same oil, add the karela and fry till it just begins to brown. remove onto paper towels.

Drain off the oil except for about a tablespoon, add the onion & fry till translucent. Add the potatoes and karela and allow to cook on med high heat for about 1-2 minutes. Add the Za'atar, pomegranate, and cayenne and stir till the spices are dispersed evenly over the vegetables. Taste for salt at this point. The karela will be quite salty, so exercise caution while adding any extra salt. Cook, uncovered for about 3-4 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish, drizzle with lemon juice &  garnish with chopped mint. Serve with Roti, or rice & Plain daal.

I found some other interesting posts dealing with karela. Here are some links to some delicious recipes..


  1. looks spicy....nice recipe...and the twist of pomegranate is nice....I will like you to visit the ongoing events to participate

    Event: Kerala Kitchen
    Event :My Diwali My Way


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