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Editor’s note: With apologies to David Letterman, Young & Hungry launches an occasional series looking at the wealth of exotic foodstuffs that can be found in the District’s ethnic grocery stores.
The food: bitter gourd, sometimes known as bitter melon, bitter cucumber, Balsam pear, balsamina (Spanish), ku gua or foo gwa (Chinese), karela (Hindi), and assorossie (French).
The background: Part of the Cucurbitaceaefamily that includes squashes, cucumbers, and watermelons, this tapered, warty-looking vegetable is the fruit of the Momordica Charantia plant, which grows in tropical and subtropical climates. It’s considered the bitterest of all edible vegetables. It’s also used as a natural remedy for Type 2 diabetes.
Who Eats It: The vegetable is consumed throughout Asia, from China to the Philippines to India. The vegetable is not widely eaten in the United States, at least not outside Szechwan restaurants like Y&H’s fave,Hong Kong Palace.
Where We Found It: Aditi Spice Depot, 409 Maple Ave. E, Vienna. (703) 938-3400.
How to Prepare It: There must be hundreds of recipes on how to cook bitter melon, many of them designed to tamp down the vegetable’s bitterness while still reveling in it. Indian cookbook author Monica Bhide has a recipe for “Gourded Secrets” in her new Modern Spice. Bhide warns that when you cut the gourd, you should “inspect the seeds. If they are white then you are fine, but if the seeds are red then the gourd is too bitter and will not lose its bitterness even by salting. Discard it!”
Gourded Secrets by Monica Bhide
5 or 6 small (5 inches) bitter gourds
2 tbs vegetable oil
1 small red onion, chopped
1 tsp grated peeled fresh ginger
1 tsp coriander seeds, roughly pounded
1 tsp red chile powder or red chile flakes
1/2 tsp dried mango powder
chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
1. Scraped the ridged part of the gourd with a knife or a vegetable peeler. It is a bit messy to peel so I do it over a sink. Cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Place the rounds in a bowl and salt them liberally. Leave for 30 minutes to an hour.
2. Rinse the gourds well to remove all the salt. Pat dry.
3. In a large lidded skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the onion, ginger, and the gourd slices. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until the gourd is crisp and the onions have changed color to a light brown.
4. Add the coriander seeds, chile powder, and mango powder, and salt to taste and mix well.
5. Add about 1/4 cup water, cover, and cook over low heat until the gourd is soft and all the water dries up, 5 to 7 minutes.
6. Remove from the heat, garnish with cilantro, and serve hot.