I have a bitter and prickly friend…

…that I would like you to meet. It goes by many names — bitter gourd; bitter melon; karela in Hindi; ku gua in Chinese; but more properly, it is known as Momordica charantia. I know, Dear Reader, that you don’t appreciate my bitter and prickly friend. I apologize if you are one of the handful who do appreciate the karela (Hi Rashmi!) but I can probably count the lot of you in Roman numerals that I’m actually quite weak in.

But I’m about to tell you that if you enjoy the occasional hoppy beer; if you don’t freak out about some frisee in your salad; or like some strongly brewed coffee, or better still, your shot of espresso; and who besides my seven-year-old doesn’t like dark chocolate? — you will probably enjoy the Momordica. Plus, its got some major diabetes-fighting skills.

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Karela is an oblong, prickly, warty fruit of a vine that originated in India, from the same family as the various melons, pumpkins, squashes and cucumbers. The resemblance in looks to the rest of its cousins is clear, but the taste, I believe, is rather unique. It is picked and eaten while it is still green. For years I assiduously peeled and seeded the gourd before preparing it, but lately I realized that both the peel and the seeds are edible, and in fact, in this preparation, the seeds add a welcome crunch. I’m all for cutting out steps from food preparation, so now when I prepare karela, I rinse them, slice them, and I’m good to go.

There are many preparations of the karela that add spices and tang to mitigate the bitterness. This method utilizes another trick — it crisps them up. At some point I will write up other, more complicated recipes for bitter gourd, but this is the simplest, and very, very addictive.

Step 1: slicing.

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Rinse, dry and de-stem the bitter gourds. I used three of the smaller Indian variety. With a sharp knife, slice them up into eighth of an inch slices, peel, seeds and all. Don’t worry if you lose a few seeds while slicing. It is more important to keep an even thickness of slice than to get it to be exactly an eighth or a quarter of an inch wide, so that they all cook evenly.

Step 2: saute.

Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a wide, non-stick pan. A crepe pan, or dosa pan, if you have such, would be ideal. If not, any Calphalon will do. When the oil shimmers, lay out the slices in a single layer, like so:

At this point, lightly salt around the slices, and wait for about 10 minutes, motionless. Oh — you can move, but keep the slices motionless. You might press down on one or two of the recalcitrant slices to ensure touch-age.

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Step 3: flip.

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As for when to flip the slices over, I would say this — be fearless, and have patience. You might see some start to brown at the bottom. Peek at a couple if you like. At any rate wait ten minutes on medium-high heat. Use a spatula and a fork, one in each hand (the fork to give you leverage), and start flipping. Drop a few more drops of oil on the pan and swirl around. Sprinkle some salt on this side as well. Be conservative, you can always salt more later. Let them cook another five minutes.

Step 4: Remove and add spice.

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At this point, most of the slice will be done and crisped up. Remove them into a plate, and toss with a few sprinkles of red chili powder. If you want to do like the street vendors in India do, make cones of newspaper, throw the karela in it, sprinkle the red chili on, and give it a few hearty shakes while holding the flaps closed. Enjoy.

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