Punjabi-Style Karela (Bitter Melon) Curry


The Market’s recipe this week is from the family kitchen of Himanee Gupta-Carlson, a founding member of the Friends of the Saratoga Farmers’ Market. The members support the Market through activities such as the Veggie Valet, which helps customers with their packages at the Saturday Market. We thank Himanee for her enthusiasm for all things local and for bringing her heritage deliciously to our tables. (To join the Friends of the Saratoga Market, talk to Himanee or another of the Friends during any market, or to Market Coordinator Suzanne Carreker-Voigt at the market shed.)

Bitter melon (also called bitter gourd or bitter squash) is a bumpy gourd-like vegetable, related to the cucumber, and available locally in September and October through the Otrembiak Family Farm stand at the Saratoga Farmers’ Market. It is an old fruit which originated in India, spread to China in the 1400s, and is now popular all over the world.

John Otrembiak first encountered bitter melon while in the Peace Corps in Southeast Asia. The Otrembiaks have grown the gourd for about twenty years because as Steve Otrembiak, John’s brother, put it, “It’s fun; the plant and the fruit are beautiful and very healthful for you to eat; and it helps fill a small demand for Asian vegetables.”

The flesh is crunchy and somewhat watery in texture, similar to cucumber or green bell pepper, but pleasantly bitter. The skin is tender and edible. Known in northern India as karela, it is fried or roasted and said to be good for digestion as well as regulating blood sugars. Its mildly bitter flavor pairs well with eggplant, greens, and several meat dishes. Himanee and her husband have been enjoying it lately with grilled beef short ribs and hamburgers.

After Himanee’s parents emigrated from India in 1961, her mother would prepare karela (bitter melon) from time to time. Karela is one of those vegetables Himanee detested as a child but came to love as an adult. She found this karela (bitter melon) recipe a few years ago on the food blog, vegetarianzest.blogspot.com, which is maintained by an Indian émigré. The dish is “strong and pungent and a little goes a long way” according to Himanee. She appreciates it for its ease of preparation, the use of produce now in season, and of course the taste. “It’s a fairly standard north Indian Punjabi preparation,” she commented, “However, I tweaked it a bit to express what was available in my garden rather than the store.”


Punjabi Style Karela (Bitter Melon) Curry (Serves 2-3 people, as a side dish) 

Cautions:  Some people (especially children) may experience reactions to the seeds of the bitter melon. Remove the seeds and discard. Bitter melon contains the glycoside vicine which can cause favism in sensitive populations. Bitter melon is not advised during pregnancy.

1 bitter melon, sliced into thin rounds *
½ small onion (about 1 tablespoon chopped *
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger
1 small tomato, chopped *
½ green chili, chopped *
Cumin seeds
½ teaspoon garam masala (This oft-used Indian spice mixture is available at local grocery or natural food stores; or you can make a quantity and freeze for later use. See the recipes on allrecipes.com.)

1. Heat oil in a skillet or frying pan; add a few cumin seeds and heat until just fragrant.

2. Add bitter melon rounds and fry for 1-2 minutes until lightly browned. Remove bitter melon from oil and place on paper towel to drain.

3. Add additional oil to skillet if necessary, and toss in onion. Fry at medium heat until browned, then add ginger, tomato and chili.

4. Lower heat and cook, stirring often, until the tomato reduces to a pulp.

5. Sprinkle garam masala on top of mixture; add bitter melon rounds, and stir so vegetable mixture coats the bitter melon.


A version of this market recipe appears in this week’s edition of Saratoga Today. Ingredients marked with an asterisk (*) are available at the Saratoga Farmers’ Market.