Bitter gourd or bitter melon is bitter, as the name suggests. But growing up, I ate this vegetable at least once a week. Actually, I had no choice. A heaping spoonful promptly landed on my plate at dinner time, and I whined and complained my way through eating it. But soon I started enjoying it, and eating bitter gourd became a normal thing for me. In my adult years, I still enjoy bitter gourd and cook it when I find fresh bitter gourd at the Indian grocery store in my neighborhood. I recall my mom used to make this dish a different way – she used to add some tamarind for sourness and a good deal of jaggery for sweetness to make the dish more appealing to me. But these days I hold the tamarind and most of the jaggery because I enjoy tasting the bitterness. I think one analogy is graduating from sweet margaritas to straight tequila.

20161202_023008987_ios Bitter melons remind me of cute little hedgehogs. If I stare at them long enough, I can see little eyes and a tiny nose. Sometimes I look at them and think of the backs of stegosauruses. When you cut slices across bitter melons, you end up with slices that look like mechanical gears. Such a fun vegetable! It packs a potent punch of bitterness too. Some Indian cooks pare down the bitterness by precooking the cut bitter gourd pieces in a mixture of lightly salted butter milk and water. I typically skip this step, but feel free to do this if you like. Make sure you discard the cooking liquid because the bitterness of the cooking liquid is quite potent.

When you buy bitter melons, ensure that they are bright green in color and the skin is bumpy without being broken. You also want bitter melons that are firm and not soft. To prepare bitter melons, I wash them clean and trim both ends. Then I cut lengthwise and then cut slices of each half. That way I end up with smaller half gears that are easier and faster to cook.

Sometimes you will find the seeds are red – if that happens to you, take a small spoon and scoop the seeds out before you proceed to slice them. The red seeds are not as tasty and may cause your dish to get mushy.

Exercise patience as you cook this dish. You want to take the bitter gourd through a slow journey of cooking. The onions and garlic get sweet as they cook with the bitter gourd. The jaggery or brown sugar at the end adds to the element of mild sweetness and  nicely balances the dish.

Before I forget, the health value of bitter gourd is very well regarded in Indian cooking. The biggest health benefits of this vegetable is that it is known to reduce blood sugar by significant levels when consumed on a regular basis. See this link I pulled up, and look for more information if you are interested.

Cooking time: 45 mins
Serves: 2

2 tbsps vegetable oil
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp urad daal
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
6 small bitter gourds, each 4-6" in length, sliced thinly
1 cup sliced onions
4-6 garlic cloves, roughly crushed
8-10 curry leaves
4 - 6 tbsps water, to deglaze pan during cooking
salt to taste
1/4 - 1/2 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp grated jaggery or brown sugar 

In a heavy bottomed or non-stick pan, preheat 2 tbsps vegetable oil on medium heat. When oil is hot, add mustard seeds, urad daal, cumin seeds, turmeric. When mustard seeds start popping, introduce the sliced bitter gourd to the pan. Sprinkle on a bit of salt to coax the water out of the bitter gourd. Stir the bitter gourd and spice mixture regularly to prevent scorching. When the bitter gourd pieces turn color from bright green to olive green; about 10 minutes, add the sliced onions, curry leaves and crushed garlic to the pan. Stir and cook another 5 minutes. Sprinkle about 4 - 6 tbsps water on to the pan. The reason for this two fold - one, it deglazes the pan nicely and two, it creates some steam for cooking and softening the vegetables. Continue stirring regularly for 20-25 minutes more until the bitter gourd is completely cooked, the onions soft and translucent, and the garlic sweet and softened. Sprinkle red chilli powder and grated jaggery or brown sugar. Cook for about 5 more minutes until the jaggery or brown sugar has completely melted into the dish. 

Serve hot, with steamed rice or quinoa and a blob of ghee.