The Bitter Taste of Health: Karela Masala (or Zucchini, If You Prefer)

Between the bok choy and green onions at the Asian Supermarket sat a basket of gorgeously bizarre (vegetables? fruits?) which looked like bright green zucchinis sporting hundreds of small knobby protuberances. I was immediately fascinated. What were these “Indian karelas” and how might one eat them?

Maybe this sounds antithetical to my whole local organic manifesto, but one of the reasons I love Asian markets is the exotic produce, grown somewhere I’ve never been, under conditions I cannot vouch for in any way, and necessitating cooking in ways I haven’t imagined. Buying one of these fruits or vegetables is like jumping off a (very small) cliff. What’s worse than buying some intriguing foodstuff and then watching it rot in the fridge, unable to figure out what to do with it?

I sighed and walked away, vowing to be satisfied with familiar greens: bok choy, Chinese basil, and peapods. Then, as I was ladeling straw mushrooms into a bag, I spotted a hopeful sight: A couple was excitedly stuffing numerous karelas into a bag. They looked Indian—another good sign.

“Excuse me,” I said without preamble. “What are you going to do with those?” pointing to their bag of knobby wonders.

Here I want to thank all you readers for giving me the excuse to engage in such presumptuous behavior. I figured, I have a food blog; I should just go and ask. I owe it to my readers.

 They both smiled, but the man’s face lit up. He said you just slice thinly and stir fry. Or steam. It is an Indian bitter melon, and is extremely healthy, especially for the skin, he explained.

Preparation sounded completely doable: just garlic, salt and pepper, he said. No need to peel the skin. So I put two big, beautiful karelas in a bag, determined to try them as a side dish.

The man saw my bag and beamed. “Even if it doesn’t taste good, you should still eat it. It’s very good for you!”

Now I knew I was in for an adventure.

At home I did a little internet research. Many (most) of the cooks suggested salting the karelas, letting them sit for an hour, and then squeezing out the juice, to get rid of some of the bitterness. But at least one recipe involved a stir-fry procedure just like the man in the store had suggested, but with more spices. Plus, one commenter on a salted, squeezed recipe claimed that this procedure got rid of the health benefits. (Karelas are high in various vitamins and are believed to help with blood sugar levels as well as the skin). Not to mention the fact that simply stir fried karelas looked wonderful, like bright green wagon wheels, while the squished juice-less version jut looked pale and mushy.

What the heck, I thought. I’ll make a whole lotta dal, in case this dish is completely inedible. So I modified a recipe for Karela Masala, substituting fresh mango for mango powder and adjusting a few spices.

I should have known from this chef’s expression (drinking the karela juice) that bitter melon lives up to its name. But I was brave…or delusional. Whichever.  My dad who was up for a brief visit and loves spicy food liked it. Wayne said it was a bit too bitter. I enjoyed it in a very small quantity. I sent the remainder home with our friend Jim, who has adventurous tastes and a hearty appetite.

The sauce, however, was my best Indian-style sauce ever, the acid of the tomatoes, the sweetness of mango, the fragrance of whole seeds heated in oil—yum! I include the recipe here, suggesting you use good old zucchinis (easy to find and not so bitter), which is what I’m doing next time. If you have an Asian market nearby, however, why not try salting and squeezing karelas and using them in this recipe and posting comments about how it turned out? Hm? Any takers? Anyone?

Admit it; those Karelas look beautiful. In background, always good: dal and brown rice.

Mango Zucchini (or Karela) Masala

  • 2 TBS cooking oil
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • ½ tsp fennel seeds
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 green chilies, seeded and sliced thin
  • 1 tsp ginger, minced
  • 1 tsp garlic, minced
  • 1 fresh mango, cubed
  • 2 tomatoes, diced
  • ½ tsp red chili powder
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder
  • ½ tsp coriander powder
  • 3 Medium zucchinis or karelas, sliced
  • salt to taste


  • a few sprigs fresh cilantro
  • ¼ tsp garam masala
  1. Add mustard, cumin and fennel seeds to heated oil
  2. When seeds begin to sizzle and pop, add onions and green chilies
  3. Saute until onions are transluscent
  4. Add all the remaining ingredients except zucchinis (ginger and garlic, mangoes, tomatoes and spices) and cook until the tomatoes soften and the whole mixture reduces in volume.
  5. Add the zucchinis and cook until they just begin to soften.
  6. Garnish with cilantro and garam masala.

One Comment:

  1. Aaaaugh! That poor guy on the video! I LOLed. Or LedOL. Whatever.

    Loved the post.

    (Also…I am looking for easy vegetarian ideas for lunches to take to work…and with the school year coming soon…maybe it would make a good theme post?)

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