Friday, 18 April 2014

Learning to love kerela (bitter melon)

Kerela, also called 'bitter melon'

Kerela is an odd looking vegetable that is easily bypassed at the grocers.  It looks half way between a dead rodent and a bumpty green fish. But it’s one of those vegetables that has near miracle claims in the health department, so I am determined to learn to love it.  Like olives, it is an acquired taste.

The first time I made it I followed a stuffed kerela recipe, which was exceedingly labour intensive, and then too strong to eat.  We scraped out the stuffing and ate that, with the poor kerelas getting tossed out.  There’s a reason for kerela also being known as ‘bitter’ melon.  At a certain large grocery chain, it’s also known as ‘Indian melon’.

But my stuffing showed me what kerela could become, if handled more cautiously.  This is what I’ve come up with, and it’s actually good to eat.  Maybe in time we’ll develop such a taste for it we can go for the whole, stuffed kerela recipe, but in the meantime, this will be a good bridge for that gap.  For a vegetarian version, double the amount of mushrooms and add diced paneer.  This recipe serves six, and is made in under an hour, excluding soaking time.
Run your thumb down the middle to clean out seeds.

2 kerelas
½ cup coarse salt

1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 teaspoon fennel seed
10 curry leaves (optional)
1 small red onion
1 pound minced lamb or beef
1 heaping tablespoon dried currants
4 cloves garlic, diced
2 Thai chilies, diced (or to taste)
3 cups finely diced mushrooms, or six if you’re not using meat
1 cup diced paneer  (only if you’re not using meat)
1 tablespoon Kitchen King masala, or a favourite prepared masala
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste 

Salt helps remove the bitterness.
Trim the ends and use a potato peeler to scrape the rubbery knobs and bits of the vegetable.  Mine had been in a plastic bag in the fridge, a bad idea, so they weren’t as fresh as if they’d been stored out in the open.  If yours are super fresh, keep the scrapings.  Once scraped, slice it down the middle, and use your thumb to scrape out the inner seed core.  Discard the seeds and pith.  Dice the kerela and spread out in a colander.  If your kerela is very fresh, add the scrapings as well.  Sprinkle the salt over the kerela, and set aside for one hour.

Heat oil in a large non-stick pan.  Add cumin, fennel and curry leaves and let sizzle.  Add the minced lamb or beef, if you are using it.  Break it up to be sure it’s in small pieces, and browns nicely.  Toss in the currants at this point.  Once the meat is starting to get golden, add the onions and cook till they start to get golden as well.  Next come the mushrooms.  (Add the paneer too if you’re skipping the meat.)  Give them about five minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the garlic, chilies and masala, along with the turmeric powder.  Stir well and let cook about five minutes, stirring from time to time. 

Rinse the kerela well.  Add to the meat and mushroom mixture.  If it looks dry, add about a quarter cup of water.  Cover, and cook till the mushrooms and kerela are tender, about fifteen minutes.  Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper, if necessary.
Rinse kerela well, and don't worry about clinging water.

I served this over a turmeric tinted basmati rice.  Salting the kerela helped to take out some of the bitterness.  If you can handle strong olives, you can handle this dish.  I find the flavour unusual and intriguing.  

Kerela is supposed to be excellent for reducing blood sugar, and is often given to diabetics.  Since adult onset diabetes runs in my family, I want to eat everything I can to counteract that issue, especially if I enjoy the meal!  

Kerela, mushroom, and minced beef over basmati rice
I could get used to this!

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