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Bitter Gourd Stir Fry — 3 ways: Karele ki Sabzi, Kalara Chadchadi, Kalara Bhaja

Summer is here, and so have arrived my beloved gourd vegetables, and bitter gourd happens to be my absolute favourite — a vegetable vastly underrated and dismissed for its bitterness. I've loved bitter gourd since I was a baby, and I'm not joking.

Today, I've not one but three easy and delicious ways of making bitter gourd! Three recipes also mean three stories where I take you from Odisha to Bombay through fleeting memories of my childhood and growing up. I also touch upon local contexts of how different versions of the same bitter gourd are made.

Bitter Gourd, the vegetable

Bitter gourd, also known as karela in Hindi, is one of the oldest vegetables adopted in Indian cuisine. Colleen Taylor Sen rightly says in Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, "The cucumber, ash gourd, snake gourd and bitter gourd are very ancient and play an important part in the Indian diet." Although so old and full of health benefits as well as the ability to blend with many flavours, the bitter gourd somehow is also "one of the most reviled vegetable in the subcontinent" as Anoothi Vishal describes in an NDTV Food article.

If bitter gourd was a person, I think they would always be judged for being intense, like mustard, and nothing beyond that would get appreciated!

Summer means the arrival of many squashes, melons and gourds, and many such softer vegetables that cook fast, render delicious dishes and are light on the stomach. Imagine the extremely hot Indian summers, and then all the gourd based summer recipes from an Indian kitchen will make more sense!

Bitter gourd happens to be amongst my favourite summer vegetables. There's so much that you can do with bitter gourds if you open your mind to see its goodness beyond its bitterness. Bitter is also an essential flavour. It's neither salty nor sour, and has a distinct pungent note. Most raw vegetables, citrus peels, greens, cocoa also have a bitter taste to them, although less pronounced than bitter gourd. The good thing about the bitter flavour is that you can combine it with complementary flavours to create complex and appetizing flavour profiles.

Bitter gourd, also known as bitter melon, comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and varying shades of green. The Indian bitter gourd is narrow and somewhat stout in the center and pointy ends, and has a jagged or ridged surface. The Chinese bitter melon on the other hand is oblong, pale green in colour and has an undulating surface. There are other varieties of bitter gourds too. Small baby bitter gourd varieties are usually preferred to stuff with spices and shallow fried or made into pickles.

Odia Style Bhaja

I was always a vegetable-loving child. I've distinct memories of sitting outside the kitchen while my mother cooked, and handed me small portions in a bowl to taste. She would blow air on the food a few times before she let me eat it, and the moment I ate I'd be quick to show my reaction. I ate bitter gourd that way too. Small spiky rings of crisply pan fried bitter gourds, kalara bhaja, were welcome on my tongue. I gulped and asked for more, banging the bowl on the floor or against the door. Those early introductions to bitter gourd perhaps helped me establish a love-love relationship with this otherwise undermined vegetable.

Mother makes a basic version of the Odia style kalara bhaja for everyday meals. She slices them not too thin neither too thick, rubs salt, chili and turmeric powder, and powders them with some homemade rice flour, chaula chuna as it's called in Odia. This is left to sit for about 10-15 minutes, and then the dry battered slices are pan fried with little oil. Serve it with some rice and dalma or plain dal. You definitely don't need anything else on the side!

Pro Tip

I find making chaula chuna at home a bit tedious. You need to wash and dry the rice (dry very well), grind it to make a powder, and then dry the flour again to lose any remaining moisture! So, I rely on store bought rice flour, and that works just fine. You can also skip the rice flour. In that case, you may want to cook a bit longer to achieve more crispiness.

Odia Style Chadchadi

Another version of bitter gourd that's popular at my parents' home is kalara chadchadi. The chadchadi made its way to our home from a small rather dingy eatery located between Balasore and one of many villages on the Odisha-West Bengal border's proximity.

I must have been less than 5 years old when my father often travelled for work to smaller towns and villages in the district while we were based in Balasore city. On the rare occasions that he didn't carry his lunch box from home, he went to eat in one of the many joints that serve simple local food on the highways. These are not your Punjabi dhabas. These are much smaller, often with thatched roofs, and a lone wooden bench outside the stall where people can share space and eat. If you have tiffin box, the stall owners are happy to pack your meal, often so full to the brim that you must be careful when open the lids!

So, Baba, my father, once ate the kalara chadchadi and came back home to sing praises about it. Maa, my mother, sent him back to the eatery during his next trip asking for the recipe, and wasn't surprised to learn that it was a mustard paste with hints of cumin, garlic and dried red chili.

Similar to a Bengali chorchori or charcharia dish whose origin ranges from Bengal's extravagance to resourcefulness the Odia chadchadi is also a stir fried ensemble of one or more vegetables. Some recipes may also have slight gravy in a chadchadi, and may also use tomatoes. Bengali charchari may or may not contain mustard paste, and when it does, it's either simply mustard or mustard with green chili. The Odia chachadi usually employs the mustard paste which also has some cumin, garlic and dried red chili.

At a distance of just about 100 kms from West Bengal, the Bengali influence is clear in Balasore and its neighbouring areas. Rising as a popular port-town in the 1730s, Balasore was part of the Bengal Presidency during British Raj, then became part of Bihar province and finally a part of Odisha somewhere around 1936. The town also had extensive coastal trade with Calcutta, Dhaka and many ports along the Coromondel Coast. An influx of mixed influences was natural in Balasore which harboured cultural elements of both Bengal and Odisha. The chadchadi is most likely the result of this culinary exchange.

It tastes great with pakhala, a congee like dish of rice and fermented rice-water or dal-rice or even rotis or parathas.

Pro Tip

If you find the taste of mustard too pungent, you may use one or half a tomato in the mustard paste. You can also tone down the mustard by using somewhat less mustard or using yellow instead of black mustard.

Punjabi Style Sabzi

This version of the bitter gourd stir fry is starkly Punjabi, a common side dish that accompanied dal and roti at Auntie A's home. If you have been following me here for a while, you'd know she was my land lady in Bombay.

We both shared our love for bitter gourd. I have spent many Sunday mornings stuffing spicy onion fillings inside baby bitter gourds while I listened to her stories or one of the many Mohammad Rafi songs on her age-old radio. Bombay summers are brutally sticky, and the only respite while working in the humid kitchen were endless glasses of aam panna (drink made with raw mango) and Auntie's rib-ticklers.

On days when we only had the longer slender gourds and no patience to make the masala for the stuffing, we would make this quick and finger-licking stir fry with onions and tomatoes. The bitter gourds' skins need a slight scaling with a knife, a gentle salt-rub and a light water bath for this. We would then make a perfectly cooked and well seasoned pyaaz tamatar ka masala, onions and tomatoes with spices, one of the fundamental things that Auntie taught me in Punjabi cooking. Onions nicely browned, ginger-garlic sans its raw taste, apt amount of red chili and turmeric, generous spoons of coriander, tomatoes completely cooked and blended with the onions and spices, and just a whiff of garam masala — that's the secret of this simple and homestyle karele ki sabzi.

Pro Tip

Cook the onions and spices properly before adding the tomatoes. This is indicated by a brownish yellow colour of the masala with oil appearing on the sides. The idea is to slightly caramelize the onions which add a sweet note and help balance the bitterness of the gourd. The sourness of tomatoes also helps take the attention away from the bitter taste.



Punjabi Style Sabzi

  • 400 to 500 gm bitter gourd

  • 1 medium onion, sliced

  • 1 medium tomato, pureed or chopped fine

  • 1 tsp ginger-garlic paste or minced

  • 2 tbsp oil

  • 1 tsp cumin

  • 1 tsp turmeric

  • 1 tsp coriander

  • 1 tsp red chili powder

  • 1/4 tsp amchur/dry mango powder

  • 1/4 tsp garam masala (optional)

  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste

  1. Wash the bitter gourds under running water. Slightly scale off the skin of the bitter gourds, taking care that you don't remove all of its skin, slice into 1/4 cm thick roundels. Add the roundels into a bowl, sprinkle salt, mix and leave aside.

  2. Heat a heavy bottom pan on medium heat and add oil. Once the oil is hot, add cumin and then add onions. Sauté the onions until they turn pink, and then add ginger and garlic. Continue tossing for 1 minute, and then add the bitter gourds. Stir to combine everything and reduce the heat slightly.

  3. Add turmeric, chili powder and coriander, and keep stirring in between. Once you see the gourds getting almost done and the onions almost brown, add the tomatoes. Mix well and add salt and amchur.

  4. Cook till the tomatoes are done and sprinkle the garam masala if using.

  5. Switch off the heat and adjust salt if needed.


Odia Style Chadchadi

  • 4-5 bitter gourd, washed, cubed or chopped into medium size - about 1 and 1/2 cup

  • 1-2 potatoes, washed, cubed or chopped same as the size of bitter gourd - about 1 cup (keep the cut potatoes submerged in water to prevent them from turning black)

  • For sorisa bata (mustard paste): 1 tsp cumin, 1 tbsp black mustard, 4-5 garlic pods, peeled and washed, 1-2 dried whole red chilies

  • 2 tbsp mustard oil (or any other oil of your choice except extra virgin olive oil)

  • 1/2 tsp pancha phutana (equal parts of cumin, mustard, fennel, fenugreek and nigella seeds)

  • 1 dried whole red chili

  • 1/2 tsp turmeric powder

  • 1/2 tsp red chili powder

  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste

  1. Soak the ingredients mentioned under sorisa bata/mustard paste in warm water.

  2. Drain the water from the submerged potatoes. In a bowl, mix the bitter gourd and potato cubes along with salt, turmeric and red chili. Keep aside.

  3. In a wok or pan, heat oil till it smokes. (If using any other oil than mustard, ensure it's hot enough.) Add the dried whole red chili, and once it smokes up, add pancha phutana.

  4. Immediately add the potatoes + bitter gourd cubes. Sauté for 4-5 minutes, and reduce heat. Cover and let it cook in its steam.

  5. Drain the ingredients mentioned in step 1, and make a fine paste by adding some water. Open the pan/wok, and give everything a good mix. Sauté for another 3-4 minutes and then add the mustard paste. Now, mix for about a minute (don't over do as mustard can turn bitter).

  6. Throw splashes of water, cover again and cook on low to medium heat until done.


Odia Style Bhaja

  • 400 to 500 gm bitter gourd

  • 1 tbsp rice flour (optional)

  • 2 tbsp oil

  • 1 tsp cumin powder

  • 1 tsp red chili powder

  • 1 tsp turmeric powder

  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste

  1. Wash the bitter gourds under running water and then slice into 1/4 cm thin roundels. Add the roundels into a bowl, sprinkle salt, turmeric, and rice flour (if using). Mix so that the spices and rice flour coat the roundels well. Keep aside for 10 minutes.

  2. Heat oil in a wok or pan. Add the bitter gourd and sauté for a minute. Then add cumin and chili powder and mix again.

  3. Continue sautéing on medium heat, adding water splashes if needed, for 15-20 minutes until crisp and cooked well.



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