Being from a family of longstanding foodies, there are not many edible things that I have yet to encounter if you discount most jungle survival food. (Even some of this I have tried.) However, not all of the things I have tried have been love at first taste; in fact some of them have taken me years to develop a taste for. I particularly remember when I was younger there were a few Indian vegetables/dishes my family would cook that I would not look forward to eating at all. One in particular I used to dread was karelas (bitter gourd). They have a distinctive bitterness that was not appealing to me and I didn’t understand why the adults relished them so much. I imagine they may have been appealing to kids that enjoyed bitter flavours such as bitter lemon drinks or various penny sweets that had a bitter tang, but I was not one of those kids. Firstly, I was definitely not a fan of penny sweets…the sugary, sweet, sour, fizzy, sometimes bitter, brightly coloured, mostly jelified objects that you’d to find your friends smuggling into lessons. You knew the sweets were coming out when you heard the signature rustle from their little neon candy-pink stripped paper bags coming from under their desks in order to get a mid lesson sugar rush/pick me up. The only penny sweets that I bought from the tuck shop were cola bottles or white chocolate mice, but there were only so many of those I could eat before I felt sick. Now I don’t think I could stomach them at all.
It was my birthday this past Sunday and I got to thinking about how my tastes have evolved as I have gotten older. Bhindis, Punjabi Wadis, Karelas are all things that I never liked as a child and now that I am older I sometimes crave for! I remember my mother making these dishes because she particularly loved them- especially Wadis. She would bring stocks of them over from India on her trips as the ones you used to get here were never the same; fortunately we get some good imported ones now. Wadis look like hardened dumplings. They are made from ground up lentil and mostly whole spices (you will be experiencing whole peppercorns guaranteed!) that are dried in the hot sun, which is why they taste so much better when they are from India; the Indian sun makes everything taste better. :) To use the wadis, you must first fry them in some oil to release the aromas from the spices and cook the lentils. You can then add them to various dishes in order to soften them as they are quite the tooth breaker if you attempt to eat them without some moisture softening them first! My mother’s favourite way to cook them are with potatoes in a gravy or to add them to vegetable pilau for that added kick. When we were younger, my sister and I would get very irritated and would have no choice but to religiously pick out any trace of wadis in whatever dish our mother added them to for her own enjoyment, but now that we’re older you may find us arguing over who is having the last one!
For my series of Meat-Free Tuesdays posts, today I am sharing a simple recipe for Karela (bitter gourd). Once a vegetable that I loathed, it has become one that I adore. This dish has the perfect balance of bitter from the karela, sourness from the amchoor powder (or lemon), sweetness and flavour from the onions, potatoes and spices; most importantly, the use of sauf ( fennel seeds) that just makes this dish sing! My love affair with fennel seeds and their magical uses in Indian cookery will be a story for another day! Karelas not only are delicious, they have many health benefits too. In the Indian culture they are used for medicinal purposes to control blood sugar problems among many other diseases.
There are many ways in which you can cook karelas; they are particularly delicious left whole and stuffed with either spiced lamb kheema or a vegetarian spicy besan (chickpea flour) mix. Today’s recipe is the easiest way I know to prepare them as well as my favourite.
Aromatic Bitter Gourd & Potato Subzi – Aloo Karela Subzi
- 3-4 karelas (bitter gourds) scrapped a little on the outside and sliced into rounds or 1 pack of frozen slices defrosted
- 1-2 potatoes cut into thick chips or cubes- whatever you prefer
- 1 onion chopped finely
- 1 onion sliced
- 1-3 green chilies-to taste
- 1 plus 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp whole fennel seeds
- 1 tsp crushed fennel seeds
- 1 tsp garam masala plus extra to taste
- 1/2 tsp red chili powder (optional)
- 2 1/2 tsp roasted ground coriander
- 1/2- 1 tsp amchoor (dried green mango powder) or some lemon juice
- 1- 2 tsp sugar/palm sugar/jaggery to taste
- some roasted ground cumin for sprinkling
- salt to taste
- Take the karela slices and salt them generously and leave in a bowl for 15-20 mins. After this time you will notice that there will be some liquid in the bowl. Squeeze the karela slices well, pat with some kitchen paper to dry and set aside. The liquid contains the bitterness. This bitterness is what contains the goodness/medicinal properties in karelas, so the more you squeeze, the more you remove. I give them a good squeeze, but not so much that they loose their shape or too much of the bitterness.
- In a wide based pan heat some oil- about 5-6 tbsp. You will need to use oil generously when cooking karelas as they do not achieve a good flavour unless they are golden and they will got get golden without enough oil however hard you try! You can however drain what remains after they are done if you choose to.
- Add 1/2 tsp cumin seeds and the well squeezed and patted dry karela slices and fry on a high heat until the slices get crispy edges and are golden- about 5-10 mins stirring frequently. When done, with a slotted spoon, remove the karela slices and set aside.
- You may need to add a tbsp or so of oil in the pan if there is none remaining from the frying of the karelas- you need about 2-3 tbsps in the pan at this stage.
- Add 1 tsp of cumin seeds and 1 tsp whole fennel seeds (if you really don’t like aniseed you can omit these, but they don’t taste aniseed-y in the same way that aniseeds do- particularly in this dish. Instead they add the most amazing dimension of taste of this dish) and allow to flutter before adding the finely chopped onions and green chilies. Allow to fry until onions are translucent- about 3-4 mins
- Next add some spices- the ground coriander, garam masala, turmeric, red chili powder and some salt to taste- about 1 1/2 tsp is the standard amount I use in dishes. Fry for about a minute.
- Add the potatoes and stir well. Cover and cook on a low heat until half cooked- about 5-10 mins (depending on how large you cut the potatoes).
- Take the lid off and now add the sliced onion, karela slices, amchoor or lemon, sugar, and some extra garam masala if you like. Stir well and cover and cook to allow the flavours to meld together and the sliced onions to soften and sweeten- about 10 mins.
- When cooked, remove from heat and stir well. Taste for salt, sweetness and sour- adjust according to taste. Don’t add too much sugar- there is not meant to be a sweet taste…the sugar is there purely to balance the flavours. Sprinkle over the crushed fennel seeds, some roasted ground cumin and extra garam masala if you like. Garnish with chopped coriander/cilantro if you have it and serve with a dal and or plain yoghurt and freshly made chapattis! Delicious!