Spicing Up The Bitter!

Life brings in people – passing ships at night on a vast ocean. I don’t normally meet most of them ever again. I am normally left with a memory of a pleasant encounter and a whiff of what-might-have-been.

Asha is one such person I met in 2004. Very briefly. I remember a smiling face.

Coincidence is when life brings us together after 14 years – on a different continent! Almost neighbours! We picked up our association like we had last met yesterday. And this time, what might have been – is. In a land which offers us precious little entertainment we have found pleasure in just going to the local market for vegetables. Not exciting you say? Well, we must take our pleasures where we find them! Especially when it’s a highlight of the month if we find anything remotely resembling farm fresh!

A couple of days ago we were at the market and stumbled on karela – bitter gourd. This is a vegetable I’ve grown in plenty in the same small town where I first met Asha. We had just spent some time reminiscing about our prolific gardens there. Asha, I remembered, had cooked this once and it was delicious. I asked her for the recipe and she very kindly agreed to share it with me. So we selected some baby karela for my first attempt.

A WhatsApp message arrived from her. Few ingredients and simple instructions, this seemed well within my capacity to make. She said this was the recipe she learnt from her mother Kaushalya Dadwal. These are the best kind of recipes – handed down generations from mother to daughter. They get infused with generations of experience which result in those little tweaks that make a difference between a tasty dish and that indescribably delicious “maa-ki-haath-ka-khaana”, literally “food cooked by a mother’s hand”.

The Mormordica Charantia is a beautiful vine which gives out delicate tendrils that wrap themselves, and cling to, any available support. Equally beautiful are the vibrant yellow flowers. Yet, this vegetable is no favourite with most people. It lives up to its name and is incredibly bitter. But like most of life, closer acquaintance reveals the hidden flavours behind the superficial taste. There are methods to remove the bitterness.

Looks can be deceptive. So it proved with these baby gourds. The first challenge I faced was the knife not going through the apparently tender vegetable. Finally, instead of slitting the vegetable, I just cut them in half! I discovered seeds that felt like hard wood chips. So, out they came.

The next challenge was actually frying these little green boats … why do they take so long to turn “golden brown”? On a hot day, it’s not pleasure to stand over boiling oil.

The third challenge was turning over these boats in the oil. They refused to stay face down. A vegetable with a mind of its own, obviously! Sigh.

I am not a “manual gadget” sort of person. For me a labour saving device means I switch on a button and the machine does the chore. But this little vegetable chopper has me enthralled. For once the advertising is honest and it actually works as efficiently and easily as promised.

Of course, the onions made me cry copiously when I was chopping them. No surprises there. What did surprise me was that I did not burn them while sautéing!

After slaving over the stove till this point I took a breather!

A short while later I re-entered the kitchen. The “golden brown boats” had cooled off along with me and were ready for the next step.

To my surprise I could stuff the karela boats easily with no messy overflow or spills.


The next challenge was the final pan frying – how on earth was the filling going to stay inside if I flipped these things? Ah well, necessity is the mother of invention. I just spooned hot oil into the boats!

The eureka moment came when I fished out the now crispy karela from the oil. I flipped them closed! And they stayed in place.

Success! Okay, okay!  Now they were a little darker brown! 

A supremely bitter vegetable turned into a delicious snack / accompanying dish with rice and daal!

Thank you Asha! This will definitely be a special recipe in my collection. Whoever said friendship needs to be all sweet does not know what they are missing!




Karela or Bitter Gourd  (tender and small in size) – 6-8

Salt – to taste 

Onions – 2-3

Green Chilly – 2

Turmeric  -1/4 tsp

Aamchur / Dry Mango Powder – 1 tsp

Coriander Powder (Optional) – 1 tsp

Cumin Powder (Optional) – 1 tsp

Oil for frying



Slit the karela down the middle. Ideally, do NOT cut through all the way through!

Sprinkle salt and leave aside for 30 mins.

Drain all the liquid that has collected and rinse out the salt. This is where you wash out the bitterness.

Deep fry these karela boats till golden brown.

For the stuffing :-

Fine chop or grate the onions. Sauté with turmeric, aamchur / mango powder, salt and green chilly. (I minced the chilly with the onions). Once brown, remove from fire.

Fill the onion mixture into the karela boats.

Pan fry them for a few minutes.

Notes:- Since this is deep fried, it lasts for upto a week in the refrigerator. This also makes it travel friendly for long journeys!

              If you want to make it the authentic and less healthy and tastier way, stuff the karela, tie a string around each of them and deep fry them again!

             Remember to untie the strings before serving!

             But you cannot do this if, like me, you have cut them completely!

Bon Apetit, everyone!