The bitter gourd (karela in Hindi or pagarkai in Tamil) is a veggie that usually inspires people to extreme love or extreme distaste. It is no star looks-wise, with a warty, bumpy green skin and big flat seeds. But it is the taste, evident in the name, that evokes the strongest passions.
In India, bitter gourd is prized for its medicinal properties: Ayurveda, the ancient Indian practice of healing the body holistically, has it that bitter gourd purifies the blood, enhances circulation and cleanses the liver.
When I was a child, my mom would find innovative ways to get my brother and me to eat it, like smothering it in a ton of jaggery (unrefined Indian sugar) or deep-frying it. But no matter how she disguised it, it was always hard to swallow.
When I began to cook, I shunned the bitter gourd for a long time. When I did cook it, on the insistence of my hubby Desi who seemed to have an unusual love for it, I would soak it in tamarind-and-salt water, peel off the skin, and try every possible way to de-bitterize it.
But sometime, in some way, this persistent veggie crawled under my skin and into my heart. I began to look forward to finding it when I visited the Indian grocery store here in my city, and I almost squealed with delight when I first found it in the aisles of an Asian grocery store in my neighborhood.
I cook this veggie now in many different ways, but my favorite is bitter gourd pitlai, a lentil-based dish that tones down the bitterness of the gourd to just the right level with spices and coconut milk. The result is simply delicious.
Fingerlickin’-Good Bitter Gourd Pitlai
4-5 bitter gourds, deseeded, then chopped into a medium-small dice
1 lemon-size ball of tamarind, soaked in about a cup of water. After the tamarind softens, crush it in your fingers to extract all the juices from it. Discard the solids.
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
2/3 cup of tuvar dal (yellow lentils) and 1/3 cup of bengal gram (chana dal) cooked until tender
2 sprigs curry leaves
For the masala:
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp bengal gram (chana dal)
1 tsp black gram (udad dal)
2-3 red chilies, broken into pieces
1/2 cup coconut milk
Roast the first four ingredients for the masala until reddish. Grind into a smooth paste with the coconut milk.
Boil the pieces of bitter gourd with half the tamarind water, adding more water if necessary, until the vegetables are tender. Drain and reserve.
Heat the remaining tamarind water in a saucepan.
Add the ground masala and let it simmer for a couple of minutes
Add the cooked mixture of bengal gram and tuvar dal and the drained bitter gourd.
Add salt to taste and simmer about 10 minutes
Heat oil in a separate saucepan. Add the mustard seeds and curry leaves. Once the mustard seeds sputter, add to the cooked Pitlai.
Serve hot with rice.