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


Shammi said...

Hi there, I used to hate karela as a kid but I quite like it now (love would be overstating it!). I dont think it's true that most Indians despise karela, though... KIDS probably hate it because it's really bitter, but it's not a vegetable that will become a rarity in India!

Gotta try your karela recipe. Havent made it that way ever.

Indian Food Rocks said...

Hey Shammi! Kids definitely hate it! Adults start eating it after learning that it's good for your health. There are these ayurvedic tablets called 'Karela' that are banned in some countries and have warnings against their use in others. Karela is known to have hypoglycemic actions leading to the belief that it is good for diabetics. Some of these warnings are related to the high mercury content in these ayurvedic tablets. Others are targeted towards the use of 'Karela' tablets to treat diabetes.

Although traditionally, I remember being told that it is good for overall digestion and a good appetite. I don't care much either ways cos I like it cos it tastes real good!

My recipe is a modification of my sister's m-i-l's recipe. Frozen karela is usually cut in rings. If I am working with fresh karela, I cut it into thin strips about 1" long by 1/4" wide.

Abhi said...

hi, after reading about "Indian kids hate Karela" it just struck me how lucky I am. My seven-year-old loves Karela! Probably the only Indian veggie she downs without any complaints. Of course the way we serve it is: Cut the Karela horizontally, sprinkle salt, leave in the fridge overnight if possible, next day squeeze out the generated water, and then deep-fry it till it becomes crisp. This is the only way she likes it. We serve it with a sprinkle of black pepper on top. We, however, sprinkle red-chilli powder on our portions, if in the mood. She eats it with dal-bath or most of the times just by itself, and the left-overs if any, for snack after school. But to get fresh Karela, the Indian variety with scales on it is not always possible in Halifax.

Indian Food Rocks said...

Abhi, your 7 year old is extra-special ! Now if I could get mine to go anywhere near karela, deep-fried or otherwise...

Indian Food Rocks said...

Tom Naka, please stop spamming my blog. Your link drops are unwelcome and very annoying. Please find some other way of promoting your blog.

Indian Food Rocks said...

Two more karela recipes I found:
- From gini of Salt and Pepper. gini's has raw rice (interesting!), coconut and fresh grated carrot!
- from Indira of Mahanandi. Indira's has jaggery that melts and coats the bitter melon.
Both sound delicious!!

Anonymous said...

manisha, Thanks for the simple Karela curry, I love Gujarathi food, My daughter started eating karala when she was just 8 months old, i thought it must be an accident, But now being 15months old, still eats karla when given. Its amazing may be bocoz , i love karela & used to eat a lot when i was pregnent with her! I tried to stop her from thumbing sucking by making juice out of raw karela & dipping her thumb in that , she started sucking the thumb more 7 even asked for more karela juice!

Anonymous said...

Hi Shoba! That's two kids who love karela! Truly amazing! You could use less chilli powder and see if your daughter will eat this shaak.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Manisha
Had bought some fresh karela recently from the Indian store and tonight tried out your father-in-law's recipe. It turned out fabulous!!!!
I grew up eating a dish kismuri which is really delicious (my 7 year old actually enjoyed it!). It involves mixing together 3 different textures: small pieces of fried crispy karela (desalted first), chopped red onions, and 1-2 tablespoons of fresh grated coconut. It is mixed just before being served or the karela may loose its cripness (this is especially true if you use defrosted grated coconut).
Give it a shot when you have the chance and let me know how it turns out!

Anonymous said...

Viday, welcome!! I am so thrilled to have you here!

My mother used to make something very similar to your recipe. We called it karlyachi koshimbir, I guess, mainly because the onions and coconut are not cooked. She also made something similar but with dried prawns. I can't remember what it was called.

I haven't been able to buy good quality fresh karela at the Indian stores here. I need to look in the Chinese and Korean stores or the farmers' market in Boulder. Your recipe brings back many memories - thanks!

Anonymous said...

FINALLY got around to making this tonight, and it was fabulous! I made it with fresh Chinese-style bitter melon, because that's what I had on hand. The small Indian ones are fairly readily available here, but I didn't have them in the house at the moment, having bought the chinese ones at the farmer's market on a whim this weekend.

I like bitter melon well enough, but I have never loved it. This I absolutely loved and will be craving to make again soo. Next time I will makke with the Indian-style bitter melon so I can compare and contrast.

Anonymous said...

Diane, I am so glad you liked it! I've never had Chinese bitter melon so that is something I need to try out. Did you use potatoes or did you do without?

The last time I made this my neighbor's 8 year old was having lunch with us. She nibbled on some and then she and Medha decided that they would take some over to her house to 'torture' the boys. Well, one of the boys was certainly tortured. The other, my neighbor's son, asked for more! I am constantly amazed by these kids from next door!

Anonymous said...

Hey guys do let me know what you hate about recipe books at:


Anonymous said...

Anon / Nilima, welcome to IFR! There are different audiences for different types of recipe books. For example, the coffee table variety have glossy pictures of beautiful silverware, dinner sets and simplified recipes. At the other end of the spectrum, you have Rasachandrika. I love them all!

Best wishes with your recipe book! I hope you get enough feedback to help you figure out where you want to position your recipe book. Do let me know when it is published!

Nelsie said...

Thank Manisha!

Anonymous said...

AA, welcome! You sound so forlorn! Don't be! Help is always a click or a keystroke away! Your Dad reminds me of my father. My mother was in India for a couple of months and I was cooking for my Dad. When we ran out of food that Mom had frozen in meal-size portions for us, I decided to start cooking. At every meal, he would be surprised by the dish I put in front of him. He would say: "Chicken!" and then not utter a word thereafter. After a while, he couldn't bear it anymore and he told me that maybe the maid should cook because Mom had trained her before she left!

I must admit that I am a teeny bit confused. Are you looking for karela recipes (bitter gourd) or recipes from Kerala (state in India). I'm guessing it's the former.

But just in case it's the latter, you can check out Kerala cooking at Gini's Salt and Pepper, at Inji Pennu's Ginger and Mango, at Shynee's Indian Potpourri. These blogs will lead you to more Kerala blogs and recipes.

Back to karela, I have another recipe here. And in the comments for this post, there is a recipe from Vidya. I finally got good fresh karela last week and I am going to cook them according to Vidya's recipe. It is yum!

Let me know how things go for you and all the best!

Anonymous said...

Thanx Manisha for a gr8 Karela recipe!! I made it without salting it before, I loved it!! Although, my husaband didn't. So, next time I'm gonna soak it with salt,for everybody's taste. And one other thing, you might find fire engine out side at the end!! when the dry spices hit the hot pan, creates lotsa smoke. Donno if I should do something different.But thats not gonna keep me from making this again!!

Anonymous said...

Thanx Manisha for a gr8 Karela recipe!! I made it without salting it before, I loved it!! Although, my husaband didn't. So, next time I'm gonna soak it with salt,for everybody's taste. And one other thing, you might find fire engine out side at the end!! when the dry spices hit the hot pan, creates lotsa smoke. Donno if I should do something different.But thats not gonna keep me from making this again!!

Pelicano said...

Real good... ;-) actually I was nibbling it during the first half of cooking and thought it tasted quite southern...then after the cumin/coriander/amchoor/sugar/salt was added, it tasted completely different...and started to get nutty tasting as I kept sampling it. Then, after the coriander leaves are added at the end, a unique "play" between them and the sugar takes place. Me like much. Thanks!

Coconut said...

You're a bad lady, Manisha! Why'd you have to make such a tasty recipe? And then force me to consume the whole batch within 24 hours of making it, all by myself? Ok, so you might not have actually forced me but... too tasty!

And this from someone whose only other experiences with karela have been through a diet cookbook from Japan, which seemed to use it both as some kind of punishment to anyone with an appetite, and as a way of enforcing the absurdly tiny portion sizes by making damn sure no-one could possibly want seconds. I never knew it could even be edible, let alone this good! :)