Karela Masala (Spicy Bittergourd Fry)

If you’ve never seen an Indian bitter gourd before, you can easily recognize it in the exotic foods section by its dead mouse appearance. What an appetizing first picture, eh? ‘Tis true. Bitter gourd, that of the unfortunate name, is the Beast to a vine-ripened tomato’s Beauty. A member of the larger squash/melon family, the Indian variety of the bitter melon is, well, vilely bitter. It is inedible raw, and only slightly better cooked. It is definitely an acquired taste and I never met a kid who liked it. So much so that our mothers used to threaten to feed us a couple bites of karela if we fussed too much about what was for dinner. Ominous indeed, no?

Bumpy, mousy-looking bitter gourd
Bumpy, mousy-looking bitter gourd

As we grew older though, at some point karela became tolerable and now I absolutely relish it. When we moved to our new neighborhood a couple of years ago, our neighbor Mr Singh brought us my most cherished “welcome to the neighborhood” gift — 5 plump homegrown karele. That was also the first time I tried this recipe. Up until then I cooked karela the North Indian way, by slicing them open on one side and stuffing them with a shallot, cilantro, cumin filling. This karela masala recipe has more of a South Indian leaning in that instead of a jeera (cumin) tempering it uses mustard seeds. This is a delicious twist for my northern taste buds, and the addition of my magic ingredient (shh, nigella seeds, don’t tell anyone) hits this one out of the field. For my North American friends looking to try something REALLY exotic, this is the bitter gourd recipe to make that foray into the authentic with. For those Indian readers who’ve never liked karela but who are now adults with a more evolved set of taste buds, I promise you, try this one once and if you still don’t like karela, never bother with it again.

Ugly duckling to... not so bad, eh?
Ugly duckling to… not so bad, eh?

Recipe makes enough to serve as a side for 2-3 adults.

*Note: Boiling in intensely salty water draws out most of the crippling bitterness of this vegetable. Do NOT skip this step.
You’ll need:
5 bitter melons, peeled and sliced into rings
1 small red onion (or shallot), sliced thinly
1 tbsp tomato paste (or 1 large fresh tomato, minced)
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp nigella seeds (aka kalonji, onion seed, black cumin, caraway seed)
1 tsp turmeric
1.5 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp paprika
salt to taste (remember to account for the salty water!)
1/2 tsp lemon juice
1-2 sprigs cilantro, for garnish
  • Set 3 cups of water to boiling. Salt it like you would water for pasta (so tasting like a tear drop).
  • Add karela rings to boiling water and boil about 5 minutes or until the rings are fork tender. Drain.
  • In a wok or frying pan heat oil. Add mustard seeds and cover (they tend to crackle and splutter and become airborne in their excitement). When crackling ceases, add nigella seeds along with the onion. Saute until translucent.
  • Add tomato paste and spices and a tsp of water to moisten the mixture. Skip the water if using fresh tomatoes. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Dump melon rings into the pan, stir and cook another 5 minutes.

  • Turn off heat, stir in lemon juice and garnish with cilantro before serving hot with roti, naan or rice.
PS: At the risk of sounding like the weirdo that I am, I’m going to tell you another way I enjoy this curry — as an open sandwich, on a slice of spread spread with tzatziki!
Run, run, run for the hills! You still got time! 🙂

2 thoughts on “Karela Masala (Spicy Bittergourd Fry)

  1. When I was a child I hated bittergourd but I have learned to love it. My mom makes it with scrambled eggs, onions, tomatoes…super tasty!

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