As a food blogger, I am starting to look at vegetables in the grocery store in a completely new way. Before, I used to just pass by unfamiliar food in the store. I thought, “What am I going to do with that?” or, “Wow, I can’t even imagine how that would taste!” But I decided to step outside my comfort zone and start buying one new or unfamiliar vegetable at least once a week. And that’s how I stumbled onto Indian bitter melon, otherwise known as karela. I thought it looked like a zucchini with reptile skin and I was totally fascinated.
I brought home 3 of them and did some research online. The recipes I found seemed too complicated or called for spices that I didn’t already have in my kitchen. So I decided to make up a recipe. I cut off the tops of the melons and scooped out the insides to make boats. I figured I could chop up the third I had taken off the top, stir fry them with onions and spices, and then stuff the bitter melons and bake them up. Kind of like zucchini boats.
But my plan was derailed. I started the stir fry but when I tasted it, it was way way way too bitter! I realized I couldn’t possibly stuff the boats and have the entire outside be that bitter tasting stuff. I did add some sugar to balance out the flavor, but it would have been too overwhelming to use all 3 melons. So instead, I cut up a head of cauliflower and added it to the stir fry. I threw out the boats because the flavor was just too strong.
My verdict? The small amount of bitter melon in the stir fry added an interesting background flavor and contrasted nicely with the sweet cauliflower. Will I buy it again? Probably not. There are so many other interesting vegetables in the grocery store that I could experiment with! Honestly, I think this curry (or is it a stir fry? I’m not really sure) would taste just as good without the bitter melon. So the veggie I wanted to be the star of the recipe ended up being a background player. That’s why it’s in parentheses — the recipe could totally do without it.
However, I did eat that whole bowl myself (that’s an entire head of cauliflower) so it couldn’t have been that bad. 😉 Whether or not you try this recipe, I encourage you to go out and buy something new or unexpected this week and flex your own culinary muscles.
Cauliflower (and Indian Bitter Melon) Curry
1 Indian bitter melon (optional)
1 tablespoon coarse Kosher salt (only if using bitter melon)
1 medium white onion, diced
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
2 cloves garlic, crushed or grated
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne (to taste)
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 head cauliflower, cut into tiny trees
1/2 tablespoon granulated sugar (only if using bitter melon)
1/2 cup coconut milk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Several sprigs cilantro or parsley, chopped (optional)
- Using a vegetable peeler, strip the rough skin from the bitter melon. Cut in half, scoop out the insides with a spoon and discard. Cut the melon into strips and then dice. Put into a colander or sieve and toss with salt. Set aside to drain. After an hour, rinse salt off and squeeze moisture out with a paper towel.
- Set a heavy skillet over low heat. Sweat the onions in a bit of oil until soft and translucent, about 8-10 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and saute another minute. Add spices and saute another 2 minutes, until fragrant.
- Turn heat up to medium. Add chopped bitter melon, red pepper, cauliflower, and sugar. Saute about 5 minutes, stirring constantly, making sure vegetables are covered with spices.
- Add coconut milk and scrape browned bits off the bottom of the pan. Put a lid on and let vegetables steam until cooked through, about 5-10 minutes.
- Remove from heat. Stir in lemon juice and fresh herbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
I chopped up the top third of each karela that I bought, so it’s the equivalent of one whole karela if I were to make this again.
I just love the gorgeous colors of Indian spices. From top left, clockwise: cayenne, cumin, coriander, and turmeric. This spice blend would also be great if you added a can of crushed tomatoes instead of coconut milk.
It might seem like there are too many steps in this recipe, but it’s really important to add the spices to the onion and give them a chance to toast in the hot pan before adding the rest of the vegetables. This brings out their flavor and helps them marry before introducing other tastes to the party.
I was planning to stuff the karela boats with this mix. But then I tasted it and realized the end result would be extremely bitter.
So I very quickly cut up a head of cauliflower into tiny trees and added it to the pan.
Everything got nice and coated with the spices before I added the coconut milk and let it steam.
And I ended up with an unusual curry with a vegetable I’d never tasted before. Even though I probably won’t buy Indian bitter melon again, I’m really glad I had this experience. There’s something to be said about improvising with a new ingredient and trying to balance out its flavor. I think it helped me to expand as a cook.