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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

It was a beautiful Saturday morning. I was in the front yard tending to my roses. My neighbor, Mr. Kasholi, was out taking a walk, and stopped by to chat. The conversation turned to a vegetable called karela, or bitter melon, which is very popular in India. He explained that his brother eats karela every day to control his diabetes. I laughed and recounted how my grandmother would insist on serving karela whenever we complained of any ailment. According to her, the bitter-tasting melon is a cure for every ailment under the sun. As a child I would do anything to avoid eating karela. While my friends would often feign aches and pains to get out of sticky situations, I would do the opposite. When I was sick, I would pretend that I was perfectly hale and hearty to avoid eating karela. Decades later, I found out my grandma was right after all! Karela is one of nature’s bountiful gifts to mankind. Rich in iron, the bitter gourd has twice the beta carotene of broccoli, twice the calcium of spinach, twice the potassium of bananas, and contains vitamins C and B 1 to 3, phosphorus, and good dietary fiber. Bitter melon has an action similar to insulin thus helping in glucose metabolism. It is used for treating diabetes mellitus. It also works as an appetizer, and aids digestion and assimilation because it promotes the secretion of digestive enzymes. Despite its bitter taste, karela is used in a wide range of cultures and cuisines. It grows in tropical areas, including parts of the Amazon, East Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and throughout South America, where it is used as a food as well as a medicine. Bitter melon is eaten in many forms in practically every country. In Denmark, it is cut into small pieces and eaten as a salad garnish. In one well-known Chinese recipe, bitter melon is cooked with pork and black beans. In India, karela is stuffed or stir-fried with spices. Bitter melon is, obviously, bitter. Western palates shy away from this taste. Blanching it before cooking helps reduce the bitter taste. In addition, you’ll often find bitter melon paired with strong flavors such as black beans and hot peppers, which counteract the bitterness. Karela cannot be eaten raw like cucumber or carrot, since its bitterness is quite unpleasant, and leaves a strong taste in the mouth for hours. Surprisingly, this vegetable can be converted into delectable dishes, which are not as bitter as the raw vegetable. Debittering of the vegetable is done in many recipes. The general procedure is to scrape the skin lightly, but not peeling it completely, just blunting the ridges. Make an incision along the length of the gourd as deep as required for the recipe. Sprinkle generously with salt (crystal is better) outside and inside. Keep aside for an hour, allowing it to exude its juices. Wash thoroughly under running water, discarding any hard seeds that may be lodged inside the vegetable. Boil in plenty of water, allowing it to simmer partially covered, till you can pierce the gourd easily with a knife. Drain again and press out gently any excess water. Keeping the health benefits in mind, I try to cook karela at least a couple of times a week. Here are two of my favorite recipes. ……………………………………………………………………………………………… Karela Rassa This is my mother’s recipe, and is very simple to make. 3 karela 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 1 teaspoon mustard seeds 8-10 curry leaves 2 onions chopped 1 teaspoon tamarind paste 2 teaspoon jaggery or brown sugar ½ teaspoon turmeric salt to taste ½ teaspoon chili powder, or to taste ½ cup water 1 tablespoon peanuts, ground 1 tablespoon ground sesame seeds 1 teaspoon coconut powder 1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped Debitter the karela as described above. In a kadahi or pan heat oil. Add mustard seeds, and wait for them to splutter. Throw in curry leaves and chopped onion. Cook on medium heat until the onion turns brown. Add chopped karela, tamarind paste, jaggery, turmeric, salt, and chili powder. Add the water. Cook on low heat for five minutes. Add the ground peanuts, ground sesame seeds, and coconut powder. Stir for a minute, and finally add cilantro. Remove from heat and serve piping hot with chapati. ……………………………………………………………………………………………… CRISPY KARELA My friend Meenakshi Gokhale, a gourmet cook, has devised a simple and easy way to make crispy karela. (This recipe does not call for any debittering.) 2 karela chopped 1 teaspoon oil ½ teaspoon salt ½ teaspoon chili powder 1 teaspoon sugar On a frying pan or tava heat oil. Add chopped karela. Stir-fry on medium heat for three to four minutes. Add salt, chili, and sugar. Mix well and place this mix in a microwave bowl. Microwave uncovered, on medium heat, for five to seven minutes, till crisp. (You may need to stir the mix every two minutes.) Keep it in a bowl and let it cool. Do not cover the bowl, otherwise the steam will soften it. Crispy karela is a great way to enjoy the bitter vegetable and its many benefits. Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of a television show Indian Vegetarian Gourmet.