Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Love it or hate it? The karela and its avatars!

I was walking through the sabzi mandi at Kotla Mubarakpur, when I spotted this man reaching deep into a damp sack. From under a layer of packing he brought out these small perfect-sized karelas.  

He was stacking them up in an attractive circular display in his basket. What a great photo op!! They were fresh and tender, the ideal sort of karela to buy.

The karela or the bittergourd is not everyone's idea of fun. If you visit someone for dinner, this is the one vegetable that your host will hesitate to put on the table, unless they know you really well.

But me, I'm a big fan. I love the bitterness of the vegetable and how it combines with spices to create a complicated, sophisticated taste. Many karela dishes also have sugar or jaggery, adding a sweet kick as well.

And it looks like there are a lot of karela fans out there, just like me. When I googled for karela recipes, an amazing variety of photos came up, from different parts of India. Some recipes were simple dry versions of karela sauteed with spices, to be eaten with dal-rice or rasam-rice. Others were recipes for moist vegetable curries that you could eat with roti. There were also recipes for stuffed karela of many types, karela pickles, karela chips and karela chutneys.

In fact, the more I saw how cleverly people were cooking karela all over India, the more I realised that this ridiculously bitter vegetable actually highlights the very finest aspects of Indian vegetarian cuisine!

If you've not cooked karela so far, then the first thing to master is a set of techniques to reduce the bitterness of the vegetable.

The most popular technique is to slice the vegetable, smear it with salt and set it aside to marinate for an hour, so that it can "give out" its bitterness. Later, you squeeze the vegetable and throw away the salt water (and along with that, most of the bitterness). In some recipes, you also smear a little bit of lemon juice along with the salt. The trouble with this approach is that along with the salt water, you are also probably tossing away all the anti-diabetic properties of the karela.

A second technique is to scrape off the ridged outer skin, which is bitter. These scrapings are usually not thrown away - they are sauteed into a spice mixture which is then used to flavour the dish.

A third method to reduce bitterness is to keep the skin but throw away the seeds inside. Bigger karelas have hard bitter dry seeds which stick in your throat and are often inedible. If you buy small, tender ones, like the one the man has got in his basket above, then you can keep the seeds if you wish.

Recently, I was introduced to karele-ka-achaar from Uttar Pradesh. It was the most amazing thing I had ever tasted. The karela was cut into small wedges, and there was lots of masala. It was exactly the same masala that you use in the typical stuffed red chilli achar. But in the karela achaar, the slight bitterness took this achaar to a completely different dimension. I ate it with a hot fluffy aromatic basmatic rice pulao, and it was incredible.

In many south Indian recipes, the karela is cooked in tamarind to kill the bitterness. A lot of jaggery is also added. My mum's recipe for parikya-pulikachal (a sweet-spicy-pickle with karela) involves sauteing green chillies, ginger and karela in a tempering of mustard, curry leaves and chana dal. Tamarind extract is added to this and cooked. A little later, jaggery is added to the mixture and cooked further. It tastes heavenly with curd-rice.

My maid, who used to work for a Gujarati home, adds raisins and ghee-fried cashewnuts to her karela-fry dish. It is a startlingly exciting taste, full of contrasts - the plump sweetness of the raisins, the bitterness of the karela, the fieriness of red chili powder and the nutty richness of the cashew. When she makes this dish, I eat it with a simple dal-rice, so that it doesn't interfere with the flavours. Anything else would be an affront to the dish :)

About 4-5 years ago, I had an absolutely delicious Punjabi karela-sabzi at my friend Pooja Sharma's house in Mayur Vihar. Her mother made it in a jiffy and I remember wolfing it down with hot rotis. When I asked her "What is your magic ingredient, aunty?", she said to me, "Nothing complicated, beta, this dish just has salt, red chilli powder and turmeric". I couldn't believe it, and kept trying to replicate it, but I think it takes Mrs. Sharma's special touch to get it perfect. I should just angle for another invitation! :) :)

If you have not tasted karela before, the easiest thing to start with is karela chips. They are popular in many parts of the country, but I have seen them more often in Western and Southern India. They are sliced really thin, coated with a thick batter of gramflour and spices, and deep fried until crisp. The spicy slightly bitter taste is a perfect match for an ice-cold beer. Try it sometime and tell me what you think!

1 comment:

poosha said...

I lovvve Mom's karelas too!
And you are welcome any time :)