Charlie Trotter is a brave man

Charlie Trotter has made the news for a lot of things recently. The foie gras episode with Rick Tramonto of Tru. Even more recent is the news that NYC's Warner Center won't have a Charlie Trotter's. But brave? I say brave. Because he used the most despised of Indian vegetables in an exquisite entrée when I dined at Charlie Trotter's restaurant in August. The karela. Or the bitter gourd. Or the bitter melon.

Thin horizontal slices of crisp uncooked de-seeded karela, that had been de-bittered by a long soak in salt water, was the garnish for a delicately flavored halibut. I was just so amazed to find karela at what is supposedly one of the best restaurants in the world where you don't just eat - you have a dining experience - that I forgot to take a picture of that exquisite creation.

Like most Indian kids, I grew up hating the green horror that is the karela and went hungry when it was the main vegetable dish at home. Now, I love karela especially after I had the Gujarati karela no shaak. But, in general, most Indians despise karela.

Therefore, I say, Charlie Trotter is a brave man!

Suvir Saran, on the other hand, seems to be either confused or misinformed. "Bitter melon, waxed gourd, lotus stem, lotus seed are exotic in India now. These are things that are lost." Exotic? Once a week or at least once in two weeks is exotic? Lotus stem is and has always been an important part of the panchrangi pickle. My Sindhi friends make a fantastic lotus stem ki subzi. Lost? In India? Not that I know of. Either he's badly misinformed or this is marketing spiel to get people to go dine at his restaurant Veda in Delhi. Good luck with the restaurant. Good Indian food is something that I am always in favor of! So, Suvir Saran, romance away! Because...Indian Food Rocks!

Karela no Shaak
Bitter Gourd / Bitter Melon

  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 1/8 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1/8 tsp cumin seeds
  • pinch asafoetida
  • 1 bag of frozen karela (usually about 14 oz.
  • 1 tsp red chilli powder (more if you like it hotter)
  • 1/8 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1/4 tsp coriander powder
  • 1/2 tsp cumin powder
  • 1 tsp amchoor powder
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • salt to taste
  1. Thaw the frozen karela and soak in a tub of salty water for about half hour. Drain and squeeze out as much of the water as possible (I usually skip this step cos both my husband and I love the bitter taste of karela.)
  2. Heat the oil in a kadhai
  3. Add the mustard seeds. When they start popping, add a pinch of asafoetida
  4. Add cumin seeds
  5. Add the red chilli powder and turmeric powder
  6. Add the karela and cook on medium to low heat, stirring often
  7. When the karela is half-cooked (about 10 minutes), add the coriander powder, cumin powder, amchoor powder, and sugar.
  8. Add salt cautiously if the karela was previously debittered in salty water.
  9. Continue cooking till the karela is fully cooked and slightly crispy.
  10. Garnish with cilantro if you have it. Pretend if you don't. ;-)
  11. Serve hot with rotis.

I make karela when my daughter is not home - so mainly at lunch. This is a variation of the Gujarati karela recipe which also contains potatoes. The potatoes are diced fine and added to the tempered oil before the karela. When the potatoes are cooked, they are removed from the kadhai and drained on a paper towel. They are returned to the pan when the karela is almost done cooking and just before the rest of the spices.

It's a wonderful medley of tastes: slightly bitter (karela), hot (red chilli powder), tangy (amchoor powder), sweet (sugar) and fragrant (coriander-cumin powders).

Edited to add: I found this hilarious gem on karela by ToI's Jug Suraiya:
Our fibre who art in health chart/ Hallowed be thy neem./ Thy karela come,/ Thy methi be done, in rotis, as leaven./ Give us this day our daily roughage/ And forgive us our triglycerides,/ As we forgive those who hydrogenate fats against us./ Lead us not into cholesterol,/ And deliver us from BP,/ For thine is the isabgol,/ The gobi and the mooli,/ For ever and ever,/ Amla.

Read the rest of the article The Karmic Karela