If into every life some little bitterness is inevitable, why not make a gift of it?
Bitterness is a hugely underutilized flavor in the Western kitchen. It’s everywhere, from lettuces to broccoli rabe to the nutty aftertaste in amare and cocktail bitters, and yet so few cooks make conscious use of the flavourful virtues of bitterness.
Indian cooks have long known about the uses and delights of mixing a little bitterness in with their meals. Fenugreek seeds and greens are commonly used ingredients and both have a pleasantly bitter aftertaste. Dark stewing greens with their deep, earthy bitterness are staples wherever you go in India.
But perhaps bitterest of all, and maybe the best beloved is the (aptly named) bitter gourd.
Known as karela in Hindi and haggalakayi in Kannada, the bitter gourd is truly the sine qua non of the battery of Indian bitter flavors.
This is a great dish to introduce yourself to bitter gourd. The bitterness is present, but it plays a supporting role, accompanied by the sweet tang of mango powder, the fruity acidity of tamarind, and the gentle caramel sweetness of jaggery. The ground beef really only plays a bit part in this dish, adding some earthiness and unctuousness to this otherwise lean dish.
SWEET AND BITTER KARELA WITH GROUND BEEF
Serves 4 as a side dish
4 medium Indian bitter gourds, washed, trimmed, sliced into rounds, seeds removed and discarded
1 tbsp amchur
1 level tsp turmeric
1 tsp chilli powder
6 tbsp tamarind puree
2 tbsp crushed jaggery
3 tbsp coconut oil
1 branch curry leaves
1 ½-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
½ lb ground beef
Salt to taste
In a medium bowl, combine the sliced bitter gourd with the amchur, turmeric, chilli powder, tamarind puree, jaggery, and a large pinch of salt. Mix well to coat the slices of bitter gourd and set aside to marinate for at least half an hour. This will allow the spices to permeate the karela but also tames its bitterness.
Heat a large wok or kadhai over high heat and add the coconut oil to it.
When the oil begins to shimmer, add the curry leaves and stand back—the oil will sputter furiously.
Very quickly, add the ginger and garlic and begin to stir immediately to ensure that they toast evenly and do not burn—don’t let them cook for more than a minute. They should just be turning golden brown and should be aromatic.
Add the ground beef and stir well, again, using the side of your spatula to break up any lumps and to allow the beef to brown. Let cook for 3-4 minutes, or until the beef is uniformly brown. Add a splash of water if the beef threatens to stick to the pan at any point.
Add the karela to the kadhai along with any liquid from the bottom of the bowl.
Cook, stirring often, for 5-7 minutes, until the karela is tender and there is just a scant amount of reduced liquid at the bottom of the pan. Taste, and adjust to taste with salt, amchur, tamarind, or jaggery.
Serve warm with chapattis and tadka dhal.