Bittersweet karela

Bitter gourds are a squash commonly consumed in South Asia but difficult to find in the States. The other day I stopped by an Asian supermarket to purchase egg roll wrappers and noticed the gourds. I couldn’t resist picking up a handful of the “karelas,” as they are known in Urdu/Hindi. I really enjoy the process involved in turning these tart vegetables into something edible and unique. They have a kick that is special to them only, and while not everyone enjoys it, I like the way they add an extra element to a traditional desi meal. I served mine with lentils and rice, and every bite of the karelas offered a surprise kick of flavor that enhanced the lentil’s mellow flavors.

It is definitely a process to make these, so it’s not a quick fix meal. You have to do some prep ahead of time to get the karelas ready to cook. First, peel the outer bumpy crocodile-like skin until the fruit’s inner lime green color shows. Then sprinkle the gourds heavily with salt and let them sit for several hours. Wash off the salt, slice them in half lengthwise, and then use a spoon to remove the seeds and inner white membrane of the vegetable. Slice into 1/2″ u-shaped bites, and let them dry completely.

You can store the karelas at this point in the fridge or freezer — so that they are ready to go at a moment’s notice. When you’re ready to cook it, follow the recipe below for a dish that still retains some of the gourd’s signature bite. A quick note first: I referred to the bitter gourd, also known as bitter melon, as a vegetable because it is prepared that way. But some cursory internet research seems to suggest it could be a fruit. Maybe some of you can help clear that up!


1. Take six medium-sized karelas and prepare them for cooking by salting, washing, drying and chopping them as explained earlier in this post.

2. Heat 1 tbsp. canola oil in a wok and add in 1 tsp. each of cumin seeds and mustard seeds as well as a few whole red chili peppers. When the mustard seeds begin to pop, throw in the karelas, 1 tbsp. tamarind paste, 1 tbsp. coriander leaves, 1 tsp. cumin powder, and salt and red chili powder to taste.

3. Saute this mixture for a few minutes, then add 1/4 cup of water and cover the wok to let the bitter gourd cook.

4. About 10 minutes later, remove the lid. Cook the mixture until the water dries up, then fry the karelas in the remaining sauce until the dish glistens and the karelas are tender, about 5-10 minutes. You don’t want a mushy vegetable here; there should still be some bite.

Garnish with a handful of freshly chopped cilantro, and serve with rice and lentils.

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