Bharva Karela | Kheema-Stuffed Bitter Gourd
It’s always a special occasion when I get karela in the house. Sadly, it’s one of those ingredients that’s still not widely available in New York City. I usually buy it at the Indian grocery stores in Jackson Heights or New Jersey, though I have found it on occasion in Asian grocery stores in Manhattan. And though I haven’t spotted them myself there, a friend sent me a photo of a vendor selling them at the Union Square farmers’ market. So, there’s still hope that one day all our local grocery stores will be carrying this fascinating, healthy, and delicious bitter gourd!
Because I didn’t grow up eating a lot of karela, I’m constantly surprised by the wonderful things that people do with it in other parts of the country. Bharva karela (literally, just “stuffed” karela), can technically be filled with any number of ingredients. Some vegetarian versions just fill it with spices, aromatics, and some lentils. My version is a sort of mix of a couple of different traditional ways with karela. The stuffing here is made with ground lamb, which, with its gamy richness, goes wonderfully with the bitter herbaceousness of the karela. But the ingredient that, in my view, makes it extra special, is the green mango with its suave, tangy, fruity bite.
The bitterness in karela can be a gift, if deployed correctly. In this version of bharva karela, when combined with just a little bit of acidity, fat, and spice, it ceases to be overwhelming and medicinal and, instead becomes enlivening, intriguing, and luscious.
4 medium-sized karela
2 medium red onions, peeled and finely diced
2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
½ tsp ground fenugreek seed
½ tsp kalonji (nigella seed)
1 tsp coriander powder
2 green chillies, finely chopped
½ green mango, peeled and finely diced
¼ cup channa dhal, soaked for at least an hour in hot water
½ lb ground lamb
1 tsp amchur (dried mango powder)
1 big handful cilantro, finely chopped
To prepare the karela, use a short, sharp knife to cut a slit down one side of the gourds. Using your fingers, pry the incision open and scrape the seeds and internal lining out. Rub the karela inside and out with a liberal quantity of salt. Massage the karela to encourage them to start disgorging their water (and some of their bitterness). Set aside for at least an hour in a strainer in the sink or over a bowl.
In a high-sided oven-safe pan, heat 2 tablespoons of mustard oil till it just begins to smoke. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, till they soften.
Next, add the ginger-garlic paste and cook for 3–4 minutes, or until the paste no longer smells raw.
Add the spices and cook for 5 minutes, or until they have flavored the cooking oil.
Add the mango, channa dhal, chopped green chilli, and a heaped teaspoon of salt and cook, till the mango has broken down and become slightly jammy and is well-combined with the spices.
Add the lamb and cilantro and cook, breaking up the lamb as you do, till it is browned all over.
Turn the heat down to low, cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, and cook, undisturbed for 10 minutes. Add up to a quarter cup of water to the pan if it looks like it is drying out or threatening to burn.
Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Test to make sure you can crush the channa dhal easily between your fingers. Set aside.
Wash the karela well under running water to remove any extra salt from it. Pat dry with paper towels and set aside.
Reserve 1.5 cups of the stuffing for the sauce and start stuffing the karela.
Using a large spoon (or your fingers), fill each of the karela with an abundant quantity of the stuffing. As you fill them, tie the karela securely shut with a length of kitchen twine to prevent the stuffing from falling out in the next step when you pan fry them.
Heat ¼ cup of mustard oil in a large kadhai or wok until it is just beginning to smoke.
Gently lower in as many karela as will comfortably fit into the bottom of the pan, split-side down.
Let the karela cook, undisturbed, on each side, for 4–5 minutes before turning them carefully. Take care not to move them too hastily, to avoid having the filling fall out.
Pan fry all the karela in this way till they’re evenly browned all over and then set them aside.
Put the 1.5 cups of reserved stuffing back in the oven-safe pan and add 1 cup of water to it. Bring to a low simmer and add the karela to the perking sauce, split-side up now.
Cover the pan and place in a 325F oven for an hour, or until the karela is tender to the tip of a sharp knife.
Remove the string from each karela before serving with a healthy spoonful of the sauce, roti, and dhal.