That karelas or bitter gourds are an acquired taste because of their bitterness is common knowledge, but why does this acquisition come usually with age? This mystery was solved for me the other day when the masters on Masterchef Australia were discussing how children have taste buds that can better sense sweet and sour and that many kids do not have taste buds to savour the bitter taste! Makes sense, since most of us karela lovers have developed the taste for the bitter vegetable slowly, being lured by adults who cook, eat and rave about karelas with such indulgence and relish! The moral of the story is, if your kids do not like karelas, don’t despair. Wait till they grow up and always praise and describe the virtues of the karela, taste wise and also health wise!
Another theory, humbly postulated by yours truly, is that the karela dishes we prepare have an abundance of tastes like sweet, sour, salty, umani from onions and in this instance the kalonji seeds, and the bitter taste from the karela. All these five tastes coming together give us the most amazing and complete sensory experience and activate the taste buds on the tongue and the scattered ones in the mouth in an explosion!
That’s the reason perhaps why the world is divided into two types of people, those who absolutely love karela and those who detest it!!
Being a member of the former fraternity (or sorority?) I consider myself lucky that we get the bitter gourd in Australia. But they are humongous karelas - about 8-9 inches long and about 2-3 inches in diameter, unlike the small ones in India. The upside is that these karelas are fleshy and not as bitter, so we don’t lose any nutrients in trying to salt the juice out! But in terms of taste, nothing beats the Indian karelas!
This baked stuffed karela dish is inspired by Atul Sikand’s recipe of karela with kalonji. I had never tried cooking with kalonji before, but once I tried this little seeds, the whole house was agog with the fragrance and we were sold on it forever!
One large karela (for the NRIs) – Resident Indians can figure out how many karelas they want to cook and make the stuffing accordingly. There is no hard and fast rule about the filling- you can stuff anything that in your experience goes well with karelas. The recipe highlights the concept mainly!
1 medium boiled and roughly mashed potato
1 small onion, chopped
1 small tomato chopped
½ teaspoon garlic chopped
½ teaspoon ginger finely chopped
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon green or red chilly powder (increase if you want)
1 teaspoon gur/sugar/sweetener (the sweet and sour tastes are important to balance the slight bitterness of the karela.
1 teaspoon lemon juice or amchur (dry mango) powder
A pinch of haldi
1 teaspoon kalonji seeds
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons Oil
Tomato slices for garnishing
Trim the ends of the karela and slit it open as widely as you can without snapping it into two. Remove seeds. Salt lightly and steam in the microwave for two minutes in a covered dish with a tablespoon of water. Allow to cool.
In a little oil, sauté the onions, garlic, ginger and when softened add the haldi, tomatoes, garam masala, chilly powder and gur/sugar. Add the boiled grated potato, lemon juice or amchur powder and salt to taste. Mix everything and turn off heat. Remember we are not going to cook the stuffing fully here.
Brush the insides of the karela with a little oil and stuff it with the potato mixture.
Lightly grease a suitable baking dish (I used a loaf tin) and drizzle oil over the karela. Arrange the tomato slices and sprinkle the kalonji seeds generously on top.
Bake in a hot oven till the karela is done and browned lightly and even the tomato slices are browned. Baste once in between with the rest of the oil. The karela should take about 20 - 25 minutes to bake.
Since there is a bit of tasty oil in the pan, it’s an idea to serve the karela on a bed of plain basmati rice to mop up the oil. You may want to add some more tadka / tempered oil to the rice so that you can slice the karela and eat it mixed with the rice!