Isn’t it sometimes funny that the things we tend to like the most are really not very good for us? Chips and crisps, buttery cookies and cakes, cheese, creamy confections are a few that come to mind. On the other hand, a lot of things that are good for us are things are those that many of us would do our best to avoid. Foods like spinach, whole grain bread, whole wheat crackers and milk to mention a few.
One such vegetable that is supposed to be extremely good but which most people dislike is the bitter gourd (or bitter melon) which we call “Parikkai” in my mother tongue (Tamil),” Pavakka or Kaipakka”(Malayalam) and “Karela” (Hindi). Of course people have good reason to dislike it – it is awfully bitter in taste!
Just take a look at how much of a nutritional powerhouse this vegetable is! It is low in calories, can lower blood glucose levels (good for Type 2 diabetics), rich in folates, flavonoids, Vitamins A, B3, B5, B6 and C, Niacin (vitamin B-3), Pantothenic acid (vit.B-5), Pyridoxine (vit.B-6) and minerals like iron, zinc, potassium, manganese and magnesium.
The only downside is that it is very, very bitter. But in India, especially in the southern part, we like to so much we have so many different ways of cooking it. In my community, we even sun-dry to preserve it and then is deep-fried and served on the side, much like crisps, with the main meal of rice and other vegetables, lentils and yogurt.
I grew up in a home where bitter gourd was cooked regularly. I remember this vegetable regularly appearing on the menu at home on both sides of the family, probably because it was a vegetable that was invariably found growing in the kitchen gardens. My father, especially, had a fondness for what I used to then consider “strange” vegetables. So if some vegetable (or fruit) tasted bitter or strange in some other way, you could be sure he would like it. Apart from the bitter gourd, things like fresh “Chundakkai” (Turkey berries), strange varieties of greens and spinach, pumpkin leaves, were all favourites with him.
I don’t remember particularly liking bittergourd as a child but I do remember I used to try and avoid preparations which featured it as a main ingredient if I could. I say “try and avoid” because as children, my sister and I had a mealtime rule whereby we could not say “no” or “I don’t like/ want this” to any item of food that was served at the table. If our mother had cooked it we had to eat it. If we didn’t like something we could choose to take smaller portions of it.
While we hated this rule (I know I did and tried to get around it, but that’s another story) as children, it ensured that we grew up to become adults who weren’t fussy about our food. It also meant that I eventually developed a liking for bittergourd!
I learnt this particular way of cooking bitter gourd from my aunt-in-law (my husband’s “Athai”). In my community and most Indian families we have very definite titles by which grandparents, aunts, uncles cousins and other relatives are addressed so as to define whether they are relatives from the maternal or paternal side, whether they’re older than ones parents or oneself, etc. “Athai” is how we address our paternal aunts (father’s sisters, older and younger). My husband’s aunt is in her eighties now and is one of the most active women I have met to date, and an excellent cook.
This is a “mezhukkuvaratti/ mezhukkupuratti” which translates as “coated with oil” and is basically a stir fry. Athai’s original recipe does not contain onions (she doesn’t ever cook with onions or garlic as is the tradition), which I have added here because I like onions and I feel the caramelised taste adds to the dish while balancing out the bitterness a bit. Athai also belongs to the school of cooking where ingredients are never measured out but added through intuition and practise so to that extent I have adapted her original recipe a bit to put it down here.
I have seen many Indian recipes for cooking bitter gourd which involves salting the chopped vegetable, and keeping it aside for some time before draining off the liquid to reduce the bitterness of the vegetable. In our style of cooking we don’t do this because it means that a lot of the nutrients of the vegetable are lost.
Instead we usually cook it with other ingredients, especially tamarind, to tone down the bitterness. Here a little bit of jaggery is also added to offset the bitterness without lending any sweetness to the preparation.
I have also found that the light green and larger varieties of bitter gourd are less bitter than the dark green and smaller ones.