When I lived in India, I disliked bitter gourd with a passion. I thought it an unnatural, dangerous, distasteful vegetable, with its ridged skin not unlike the hides of alligators, its large, hard seeds that cracked and lodged between your teeth, and its acrid bitterness that remained in your mouth no matter what you ate afterwards. My mother thought otherwise. The result was many tearful mealtime struggles.
[Photo credit: Pbase.com]
So I am well aware of the irony in the fact that today bitter gourd has become one of my favorite vegetables, and that I try to present it in various palatable disguises to my own children. This has resulted partly because I've developed a taste for its unique, tangy bitterness and partly because I'm now aware of its health benefits. (It can help people with diabetes, toxemia, obesity, high blood pressure, and eye and skin problems, among others.) But mostly it is because of nostalgia, because the taste brings the India of my childhood back to me. In this, I believe I'm not alone. Food is an easy way to transport our culture to a strange land, and transport ourselves back to familiar landscapes at the same time.
In my novel One Amazing Thing, Uma's parents, who live in America, constantly cook the dishes of their youth, although they also add a new cuisine to their repertoire--another skill the immigrant must learn. "They celebrated weekends with gusto, getting together with other suburbanite Indian families, orchestrating elaborate, schizophrenic meals (mustard fish and fried bitter gourd for the parents; spaghetti with meatballs and peach pie for the children)."
Fried bitter gourd (which can be found, outside India, in Asian or Indian grocery stores) can be prepared in many ways in Bengali cuisine. Here is a simple version.
Thinly slice bitter gourd into circles (2 cups worth). Rub with 1/4 t turmeric. Add salt to taste. Put aside for an hour. Squeeze out excess water. (This makes it less bitter).
In a pan, add enough oil (I use Canola) to cover the bottom. Fry the bitter gourd slices on medium heat until they are crisp and brown. Add red pepper to taste. (I add a ¼ t). If you want to reduce the bitter taste further, mix in a ¼ t. sugar. Drain on paper towels.
Eat with hot rice.
For a complete meal, this first course can be followed by chochhori (a mixed vegetable dish) and a chicken yogurt curry, ending with mango ice cream for dessert. All these recipes are on this blog.
Do you have your own recipes for bitter gourd? Or other nostalgic dishes from your childhood? Please post--I'd love to know of them.