There are two ways to negotiate the karela (bitter gourd in more fashionable circles). One is to accept it at face value and take its bitterness in your stride. The other is to destroy every evidence of its personality, render it completely unrecognizable, and then pride at how you have camouflaged its bitterness.
Since I am a strong advocate of retaining as much of the aesthetic of a vegetable as is realistically possible (with an exception of baingan for bharta), I would brave the karela as it is, with no major alterations to its physical or chemical composition.
Perhaps the most extreme of torture would be to scrape it off its alligator scale-like appearance, rendering it almost bald, then drowning it in salt, squeezing it off all its bitterness, stuffing it with a million masalas, tying it up in threads and then slow-cooking it. Stuffed Karela in my world would qualify as exemplary cruelty to vegetables.
When we were kids, my mother (or father, when he got a chance) would slip karelas into the lunch menu every odd Sunday (rather apologetically) and then steel themselves to incur our wrath. The effect was rather immediate. Me and the siblings would sulk, go on a mini hunger strike, postpone eating for as long as we could, and then grudgingly eat the karela in its various avatars. But except the crispy ones (a variant is available at the nearest Hot Chips), nothing got our vote.
Things have changed a lot since then, at least for me. I have explored this lesser gourd, seen it in a new light, and made some happy memories out of it in the process(see below)
One thing the karela teaches you for sure is patience. It cannot endure drastic measures, like say, the potato. So whether you are making a simple crispy karela or blending it with other members of the vegetable family, it needs to be handled with care, de-bittered, but not too much, cooked slowly, tossed often. And despite being the spurned one for many palates, it still puts up a brave front. I love it for its resilience.
Karela with potatoes
This is the simplest way to eat karela and one of my favourite recipes. The potatoes help absorb the bitterness of karela, making it a great marriage. It was given to me by my Bengali colleague. “Do nothing to it, add nothing,” is her mantra.
Wash, dry and chop karelas into small pieces. Do the same with the potatoes.
Heat one tablespoon oil in a non-stick man. Add the karela-potato mix, add salt, a pinch of sugar, haldi and mirchi powder.
Cook slowly. Do not cover (water from condensation brings out the bitterness)
Serve with chapatis or rice and dal.
Note: You can also substitute the potatoes with aubergines.
Karela with onions
One thinly sliced medium sized onion
2-3 karelas, slit vertically and then thinly sliced. Soak this in water with a teaspoon of salt and then squeeze dry, draining off the water
Two vertically slit green chillies
Salt, sugar to taste
Heat one tablespoon oil in a skillet. Add mustard and when it splutters, add the slit green chillies and the sliced onions and slowly sauté.
When the onions are near-brown, add the karelas, amchur powder, salt and mix well.
Cook slowly, uncovered, till the karelas brown.
Karela in tamarind sauce (paarikai pachadi)
Chop fine. Discard larger seeds, but keep the tender ones. Soak in salted water , squeeze out excess water.
Heat oil, add mustard seeds. When it sputters, add hing and two slit green chillies.
To this add the chopped karela and sautee…
To the juice of a lemon sized ball of tamarind, add a spoonful of besan and mix well.
Add the tamarind-besan mixture to the sautéed karelas.
Add sambar powder, salt, a small piece of jaggery, and bring to boil.
Serve with rice or chapatis.