If ever there were a vegetable that deserves the label ‘an acquired taste’ it is the karela or aptly named bitter gourd. The first time you taste it you could be forgiven for thinking that the chef has made a mistake and served some inedibly bitter vegetable. Some give up after that first mouthful, but if you brave a second you might just begin to appreciate the flavour of this peculiar-looking vegetable. Soon you’ll find yourself relishing a third mouthful and before long your plate will be finished. And someday soon you’ll start craving a second helping of the flavour sensation that you first found so off-putting.
I can’t promise that you’ll acquire the taste for karela, but I think you should try it at least once. What’s the worst thing that can happen? And if you are looking for ideas about how to prepare it, my stuffed karela is a great place to start. It’s stuffed with fresh coconut, ground peanuts and Marathi spices. Pungent garlic, aromatic kala masala and roasted peanuts all seem to bring out the best in this vegetable. They don’t hide the bitterness – after all, that’s part of the charm of this ‘bharli karli’ as we call it in Marathi.
Some people add a lot of sweet ingredients to their karela dishes or soak them in salt water to try to counteract the bitterness. But for me that kind of misses the point – I want to celebrate its unique flavour by tempering the bitterness without trying to hide it completely. All I do is scrape off a little of the knobbly outer skin and rely on the natural sweetness of the coconut and finely diced cherry tomatoes to balance the flavours. Then I just lap them up with some soft chapatis, bhakri or even ‘varan bhaat ani toop’ i.e dal, rice and ghee, the quintessential staple for Indians.
How I cook ‘bharli karli ‘ or stuffed bittergourd?
The essence of this Maharashtrian speciality lies in its masala which rather than hiding, complements the bitterness. The masala typically has fresh or dry coconut, roasted ground peanuts and plenty of garlic. It’s mixed with kala masala, red chilli powder and turmeric along with salt and a little sugar. I also love to add some fresh coriander as well as tiny bits of cherry tomatoes which IMO make a dramatic difference to the taste. The resultant masala is just a tad spicy, sweet and ever so slightly tangy from tomatoes which complement the inherent bitter flavour. Slit the tender bitter gourds lengthwise. Discard the hard chunky seeds but retain the tender soft ones. Stuff each karela with the masala. Shallow fry until the skin cooks through. Also, chuck the tender gourd seeds into the pan. And you’re done.
Low Waste Stuffed Bittergourd / Bharli Karli / भरली कारलीCourse: MainCuisine: Maharashtrian, IndianDifficulty: Medium
6 tender bitter gourds (washed and pat dried)
50ml sunflower oil
- For the masala:
40g (½ cup) fresh coconut
2½ tbsp roasted and ground peanut (aka ‘shengadanyacha koot’)
10-12 garlic cloves
1 tsp kala masala (or goda masala)
1 tsp red chilli powder
½ tsp salt or to taste
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp turmeric powder
3-4 cherry tomatoes (diced)
1 tbsp fresh coriander leaves and stalks (finely chopped)
- Lightly scrape off the knobbly skin of the bitter gourds. Slit the tender bitter gourds lengthwise. Remove and collect the chunky seeds in a bowl.
- Start by grinding the garlic and fresh coconut to a coarse paste. Then mix in the roasted ground peanut along with the kala masala, red chilli and turmeric powder, salt, sugar and chopped coriander. Bring all the masala together and keep it aside.
- Now, open the gourd slits (from step 1) and stuff in the masala a little at a time whilst pressing gently so that it doesn’t fall out of the opening. Repeat this for all the bitter gourds. Keep aside the surplus masala.
- Heat up the oil in a frying pan over a medium flame. Gently place the gourds in the oil one at a time. Cover and cook for a couple of minutes. Then using a spatula turn the gourds so that they’re cooked on all sides. Cover and cook for another couple of minutes. Now tip in the surplus masala along with the tender bitter gourd seeds and optionally, the knobbly skin from step 1. Ensure there is enough oil in the pan to cook the seeds as well as the gourd through. If not, top up with a little more oil and continue cooking with a lid on for another 2-3 minutes over a low to medium flame. Finally, turn all the gourds to ensure their skin is thoroughly cooked and browned a little on a few sides.
- 1. This dish turns out best with tender bitter gourd or karela.
- 2. The scraped knobbly peel of the bitter gourd can be stored in the fridge to make a delicious dry chutney. The peel keeps well for up to 3 days in the fridge. Alternatively, you can chuck it into the pan along with the gourd seeds in step 4.
- 3. You can prepare the masala without the cherry tomatoes and coriander but the taste will differ slightly from my recipe.
- 4. Skip the kala masala or goda masala if you don’t have either. The dish will still turn out delicious without these.
- 5. If you passionately detest the bitter gourds’ bitter flavour then you can smother them in salt for 30 minutes after step 1. Squeeze out the bitter juices of the gourds by pressing them between your hands. Then follow the recipe as above.
- 6. This is a no-to-low-waste stuffed bitter gourd recipe and the way I like it cooked to align with my zero-waste cooking ethos. Feel free to skip the seeds if you prefer it without.
- 7. Storage: stuffed karela or bitter gourd keeps well for up to a week in a refrigerator. Simply store it in a dry airtight container.