Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Karela a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Karela. Just the mention of the word is enough to make half of my Indian friends cringe. For many Indians, especially those from the north, karela is that vegetable that their parents made them eat. It's your broccoli or whatever vegetable you promised yourself you would never eat again as an adult; it's my canned button mushrooms.

Karela is a squash that we call in English a bitter melon, which as you can see is a small green squash with a warty skin. This is the cultivar called "Indian;" another that is larger, rounder, and paler is called "Chinese." And, like all squashes, there are endless other styles that fall in between.

Karela is widely appreciated (and widely despised, especially by children) in Asian cuisines for its bitter flavor. Americans in particular have no stomach for bitter flavors. I must be a mutant, because I really appreciate bitter flavors. Mutant or not, there are other karela afficionados out there and my buddy Shiv fiends for karela as much as I do. He called me on Tuesday afternoon:

"Ed, I have just been shopping in Fairfax and guess what I am bringing back?"
"Tomorrow night?"
"I'll bring the beer!"

So last night after a morbidly slow evening, I brought the beer and an eggplant curry and we set about our karela feast. Shiv had already peeled the warty skin off the squashes and salted them by the time I arrived. Salting them withdraws some of the bitter juice. (Personally, I don't salt them.) After letting them sit for an hour or so, I squeezed them and then chopped them.

We let the sliced karela cook slowly over a low flame after browning them in hot pan, while Shiv started the rest of the dish in a separate pan.

Here you can see the onions, the large quantity of green Thai chiles, and the masala working. I didn't see all the spicing that Shiv used because I was busy making naan. We all have our own pet masalas and spices that we use for different dishes; me, I would have put hing and mustard seed in this dish, but I could taste that Shiv did not. But I did taste quite a lot of mustard oil.

Once the onions and karela were cooked, Shiv mixed the two of them, and added some additional spices while I finished my eggplant curry. Here is the finished dish waiting for the naan to cook.

This photo of the naan in the tandoor is proof that my naan are actually round and no longer resemble maps of the United States in shape. Junior tandoor cook in training here!

We feasted very well last night and that has satisfied my karela craving for at least another 8 hours.

Sadly, there's no way that I can serve karela in my American restaurant. And, even Shiv won't put it on his menu because it's relatively expensive and his largely American clientele won't order it. The question remains: Are you brave enough to drive into Fairfax to buy some and then come home and cook them? If you are, you just might find yourself joining our little late night karela club, which numbers about five or six right now.

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