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Front photo of pavakkai pitlai with okra, rice and ribbon pakoda.
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5 from 4 votes

Pavakkai (Bitter Gourd) Pitlai Recipe

A delicious dal made with bitter gourds or bitter melons, this pavakkai pitlai is also one of the healthiest foods you will ever eat. Pair it with rice or idli or dosa for a perfect south Indian meal.
Prep Time30 mins
Cook Time30 mins
Total Time1 hr
Course: Main Course/Dal
Cuisine: Tamil/South Indian
Diet: Gluten Free, Vegan, Vegetarian
Keyword: Karela Pitlai, Pavakkai Pitlai
Servings: 8 servings
Calories: 73kcal


  • ½ cup tuvar dal
  • 4 bitter melons (cut into thin slices vertically, cut out the portion of the white flesh that has seeds embedded in it, then chop the green portion into small cubes, about 1 centimeter each.)
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric (divided)
  • 2 teaspoon coconut oil (divided)
  • 1 tablespoon chana dal
  • 2 tablespoon coriander seeds
  • 2 dry red chili peppers (broken into smaller pieces, or use 1 teaspoon or less of red pepper flakes)
  • ¼ cup coconut (grated, unsweetened)
  • ½ teaspoon asafetida (hing)
  • ½ teaspoon mustard seeds
  • ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 2 sprigs curry leaves
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind paste/pulp
  • 1 tablespoon jaggery (powdered or grated. Alternatively use sugar)
  • 2 tablespoon cilantro (chopped)
  • Salt to taste


  • Cook the tuvar dal with water and ¼ teaspoon turmeric until very soft and mushy. Set aside.
  • Place the chopped bitter melon pieces in a saucepan or bowl with enough water to cover. Stir in ¼ teaspoon of turmeric. Cook on the stovetop or in the microwave until the veggies are tender, about 10 minutes. Drain out the water and set aside.
  • Heat 1 teaspoon oil in a saucepan. Add the chana dal, coriander seeds, red chili peppers and coconut. Saute on low heat for 5-10 minutes or until the coconut is golden-brown and the coriander and dal are a couple of shades darker. Don't leave this unattended and don't do this over high heat as coconut has a tendency to burn. Turn off the heat and stir in the asafetida.
  • Let the spices and coconut cool on a plate, then blend into a smooth paste with ¼ cup water. Set aside.
  • Heat the remaining 1 teaspoon oil in the same saucepan. Add the mustard and cumin seeds. When the mustard sputters, add the curry leaves. Saute for a few seconds.
  • Add the tamarind with ½ cup water. Bring to a boil and let it simmer a couple of minutes.
  • Add the drained bitter gourd, cooked dal and blended coconut spice paste to the saucepan. Stir in the jaggery and add more water if needed to thin out the dal to your liking.
  • Add salt to taste. Bring the pitlai to a boil and let it continue to cook over medium heat another five minutes for all the flavors to merge.
  • Turn off the heat, garnish with cilantro, and serve hot.


  • If you set out to buy bitter gourds at an Asian market, you will likely find two varieties: one with a harder, darker green skin and sharper spikes, like the one I pictured above, and another that's larger and lighter green with a softer appearance. Either will work in this recipe.
  • Some cooks like scraping off the spiky skin of the karela before cooking, but I like keeping it on for more healthfulness. 
  • If you can't quite handle karela and would like to make this dal with another veggie, use any squash, including Indian squashes like bottle gourd (dudhi) or any winter squash or zucchini. You don't need to precook these squashes, just add them directly to the pot along with the tamarind pulp and water.


Calories: 73kcal | Carbohydrates: 11g | Protein: 3g | Fat: 2g | Saturated Fat: 2g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 1g | Monounsaturated Fat: 1g | Potassium: 185mg | Fiber: 4g | Sugar: 2g | Vitamin A: 280IU | Vitamin C: 50mg | Calcium: 33mg | Iron: 1mg