Saturday, July 07, 2007
K is for Karela
I couldn’t resist the karela. They were in the exotic vegetable pen, the part of the supermarket that looks more like a pet shop than a food counter. Their skins are reptilian, bright green like lizards with long thin bodies that taper off to a thin stalk. Buying them was the easy part. Finding out what to do with them took a fortnight of research. Well I call it research but it consisted of lurking. I waited at the vegetable/pet counter waiting for someone else to buy them. Fifteen minutes passed and the security guard started to glare at me. I tried my luck at the checkout. The shop assistant just laughed when I asked if he had ever eaten one.
On the internet I learnt that the karela is also known as the bitter gourd or bitter melon and is grown across Asia – including India, China and in Africa and the Caribbean.
So my lurking became more persistent. For a week I carried round a mouldy karela in my handbag. My daily commute became an intelligence gathering operation. It enlivened a board meeting, caused a stir at the bus stop and sparked off a lively debate at a health food store. But it was Shuba, a colleague at work, who finally helped me out. She rang her mum who cooks karela for her Dad. Over the phone she relayed complicated instructions about salting, soaking and cooking the karela. I learnt it can be made into a simple curry or stuffed, fried and baked in the oven. I was warned that it was as the name suggests, extremely bitter. On the way home I bought a fresh batch.
The karela requires nothing short of a full spa treatment to get it ready to cook. Skin has to be scraped,seeds removed, salt rubbed in, flesh soaked,then rinsed and squeezed to remove the bitterness. At the end of this process, I split open its middle and scraped out the pith and seeds and stuffed them with a mild lamb curry. I fried them and then baked them in the oven.
A “bitter gourd face” is a common Chinese phrase for an angry or serious face. When we took a bite of this dish, all of us displayed the bitter gourd face. “That is 0 out of 10.” This was Freddie’s lowest-ever rating. Despite all the kind help and advice I had been given, I had failed to bring out the best in the karela. And no-one was prepared to let me try again.
THE BITTER GOURD FACE