Bitter gourd, also known as bitter melon (or karela in hindi), is a tropical fruit - yes, fruit! There are several varieties available; the most commonly seen are the light green variety which is from India and the dark green one which is the subcontinent variety. This fruit is a natural wonder as it offers many health benefits. However, it is also one of the most bitter fruits you will ever find and there are people who actually enjoy the bitterness of bitter gourd (Umm...not me of course!). The high concentration of quinine in the fruit is what makes it so exceptionally bitter. And we are the only creatures on this planet that can actually taste bitterness :D
Okay, coming to the benefits... along with being used in cuisines, bitter gourd is also used extensively in ancient healing practices. Some of the well known health benefits are reducing sugar levels in people with diabetes, providing relief from constipation, improving blood circulation and relief from piles. It is rich in iron, vitamins, phosphorus and fibre and apparently has more beta carotene than broccoli, more iron than spinach and more potassium than banana! Now that is some fruit! As per this article on Herbal DB:
"For every 100 grams, a boiled bitter melon contains carbohydrates (4.32 g), sugar (1.95 g), protein (0.84 g), water (93.95 g), calcium (1 mg), iron (0.38 mg), sodium (6 mg) and zinc (0.77 mg), as well as Vitamins A, B, C, E and K."
For cooking, buy tender bitter gourds as they tend to be less bitter and more crunchy. Always remove the pith and the seeds (I usually scoop those away with a spoon). Adding salt to the sliced / chopped portions and then squeezing out the water will also help in reducing the bitterness to a large extent.
Theeyal is a common South Indian dish and literally means 'burnt' as the main ingredient of this dish is roasted coconut. We roast coconut till it is almost burnt and that imparts the unique flavour and colour to theeyals. You can follow the same recipe to prepare theeyal with different vegetables like shallots, eggplant, ladies finger or even potatoes. So if you don't like bitter gourd, don't worry, you can still try this recipe with any other vegetable of your choice :) It is a bit time consuming but definitely worth the effort. A very flavorful and tasty side dish for rice that makes a good meal.
Bitter Gourd Theeyal: Recipe
For roasted coconut paste:
- Fresh, grated coconut - 1 to 1.5 cups
- Asafoetida or hing - a pinch
- Dry red chillies - 4
- Fenugreek seeds or Uluva - 1/4 tsp
- Shallots thinly sliced - 3 to 4
- Coriander powder - 1 tsp
- Cumin powder - 1/2 tsp
- Peppercorns - few as per your spice level
- Bitter gourd, de-seeded and thinly sliced - 1 large (I like the dark green variety)
- Tamarind - 1 lime or gooseberry sized ball
- Curry leaves - a handful
- Green Chilli, slit - 1 or 2 as per your spice level
- Mustard seeds - 1/2 tsp
- Dry red chilli - 2 for tempering
- Salt to taste
- Oil - 2 to 3 tbsp (Using coconut oil adds more flavour to the dish)
- Soak tamarind ball in half cup pf warm water so that you can extract the juice later.
- Add some salt to the sliced bitter gourd and leave it for about 15 minutes. Then squeeze them hard with your hand to remove the juice. This way the bitterness is reduced.
- Heat a non stick pan, add few drops of oil, followed by the ingredients for roasted coconut - coconut, shallots, dry red chilli, pepper corn, fenugreek and asafoetida. You can add the powdered spices later when the coconut is almost roasted.
- Toss the ingredients in the pan till they start getting a deep brown colour. You will get the nice aroma of roasted coconut. When the coconut is almost dark brown add the coriander and cumin powders and then stir for couple of minutes more. The ingredients should be dark brown but should not be burnt completely.
- Once done, keep it aside to cool. After cooling down grind everything to a fine paste. Now ideally you need not add any water as the ingredients will get ground with the oil released from coconut. But frankly speaking, that never happens with me (my mom is an expert!). So I always add a bit of water to help it grind. Will depend on your grinder also I guess.
- Heat oil in a kadai and add the squeezed bitter gourd slices along with the green chillies. Saute till they are soft and half cooked. The bitter gourd slices will start to brown. Then add the roasted coconut paste and give it another mix.
- Squeeze the soaked tamarind to extract the juice and pour this over the bitter gourd and coconut mixture in the kadai. Adjust the water as per the consistency you like. We normally like it a bit thick. Add salt to taste. Cover and let it simmer for few minutes. Keep stirring from time to time. The water will reduce and you can see a thin layer of oil appearing on the top. That is when you know your dish is done.
- Heat some oil separately to prepare the tempering. Add mustard seeds; once they start to crackle, add the curry leaves and tear up a couple of dry red chillies. Fry for few seconds and then pour this tempering over the dish. Serve hot with warm rice.