May the fruit of the bitter gourd reside in every morsel of mine
~ from "Kshema Kutuhalam", an ancient Ayurvedic text as quoted by Jigyasa Giri and Pratibha Jain
If you've grown up in North America, there's a very good chance that you've never eaten bitter melons, if in fact you've even heard of them — and that would be a shame. Also known as bitter gourds, bitter melons have a fresh crunch that tastes like something between zucchini and cucumber — except, of course, far more bitter. But while deserving of their name, bitter melons are also powerhouses of nutritional and healing benefits that are highly esteemed in India and much of Asia, where the vegetable is considered a tonic for stomach complaints and the listless appetites of the elderly and the sick. Also considered to have anti-viral, anti-anemic and even anti-diabetic properties, you don't need to be suffering any maladies to enjoy a rich source of iron, beta carotene, calcium and potassium and good source of fiber, phosphorus and vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 and C that should give bitter melons a prominent place in any nutritionist's dossier.
Fortunately, bitter melons are also widely available here in any Indian or Chinese grocer, and the bitter taste — difficult to acquire on its own — is easily moderated by cooking with rich and spicy flavors as in this hearty and colorful sambar, adapted from Chandra Padmanabhan's delightful compendium of South Indian cooking "Dakshin". Served with every South Indian meal, sambars are vegetable stews cooked with toor dal (pigeon peas) and flavored with tamarind and ground spices — bitter melons perform an admirable contrast with these rich tastes and make an astoundingly flavourful dish that is delicious served with hot freshly cooked rice.
As with toor dal, tamarind, jaggery and other ingredients in this recipe, bitter melons are easily found in Indian and Asian grocers. The immature fruits of a vine plant, Indian bitter melons are not difficult to identify by appearance — short green oval gourds with a skin covered with "warts" and ridges. Chinese bitter melons have a paler and less stippled appearance — either variety can be used, and first comers may want to consider that Chinese bitter melons are a little less bitter in taste. Avoid bitter melons that are starting to turn yellow — these should be discarded — and refrigerate in a plastic bag no more than a few days before cutting and using. Gently wash the skins of the gourds, cut off the ends, and slice lengthwise to scrape out the seeds and fibrous tissue before chopping and cooking.
One further note — good commercial brands of sambar masala or sambar powder are also easily available at Indian grocers, but to get the vibrancy of a spice blend made fresh at home, just follow this very simple recipe here.
|Bitter Melon (Bitter Gourd) Sambar|
|Recipe by Lisa Turner|
Adapted from Dakshin
Published on December 5, 2011
A spicy and very healthy South Indian curry made with bitter melons, one of the most extraordinary and beneficial vegetables
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