Prasadam – Karela, Part 2
BY: SUN STAFF
Mmomordica charantia (Bitter Melon)
May 11, 2016 CANADA (SUN) A journey through India: border to border, bhoga to prasadam.
In Sri Caitanya-caritamrta we find several references to sukhta, referring to various preparations made with bitter vegetables. The most common of these is karela, particularly in Bengal, but there is also nimba (neem) leaves, fenugreek greens, and several bitter (katu) spices, like turmeric. In Madhya Lila 3, there is a nice description of sukhta preparations being served to Lord Caitanya:
3.38: "Advaita Acarya said, "You have been fasting continuously for three days in Your ecstasy of love for Krsna. I therefore invite You to My home, where You may kindly take Your alms. Come with Me to My residence."
3.39: Advaita Prabhu continued, "At My home I have just cooked one palmful of rice. The vegetables are always very simple. There is no luxurious cooking -- simply a little liquid vegetable and spinach."
3.40: Saying this, Sri Advaita Acarya took the Lord into the boat and brought the Lord to His residence. There Advaita Acarya washed the feet of the Lord and was consequently very happy within.
3.41: All the eatables were first cooked by the wife of Advaita Acarya. Then Srila Advaita Acarya personally offered everything to Lord Visnu.
3.42: All the prepared food was divided into three equal parts. One part was arranged on a metal plate for offering to Lord Krsna.
3.43: Of the three divisions, one was arranged on a metal plate, and the other two were arranged on plantain leaves. These leaves were not bifurcated, and they were taken from a banana tree that held at least thirty-two bunches of bananas. The two plates were filled very nicely with the kinds of food described below.
3.44: The cooked rice was a stack of very fine grains nicely cooked, and in the middle was yellow clarified butter from the milk of cows. Surrounding the stack of rice were pots made of the skins of banana trees, and in these pots were varieties of vegetables and mung dhal.
3.45: Among the cooked vegetables were patolas, squash, manakacu and a salad made with pieces of ginger and various types of spinach.
3.46: There was sukhta, bitter melon mixed with all kinds of vegetables, defying the taste of nectar. There were five types of bitter and pungent sukhtas.
3.47: Amongst the various vegetables were newly grown leaves of nimba trees fried with eggplant. The fruit known as patola was fried with phulabadi, a kind of dhal preparation first mashed and then dried in the sun. There was also a preparation known as kusmanda-manacaki."
Since the sukhtas are sabjis made with bitter vegetables, the five types of bitters described in Madhya 3.46 may have been five different preparations of karela, or also some sabjis of neem and fenugreek, e.g., although neem (nimba) is mentioned separately in the next verse. It's also interesting that verse 3.47 mentions patola, along with the bitter nimba. Srila Prabhupada on several occasions mentioned patola and bitter melon in the same conversation, which may indicate that patola pairs nicely with bitters.
Bitter Melon Sticky Rice
Before getting into some of the `traditional karela preparations, there are a few more unusual variations to consider following our last segment's Kaddu Kheer. One is a sweet made from sticky rice that has been cooked along with bitter melon. The karela is seeded and a little of the bitterness removed in a salt bath. It is then chopped into small pieces and cooked along with the rice. The karela bits are removed, leaving behind a nutty bitter flavor in the rice. Once cooled, the rice is shaped into balls or other forms, and a sweet sesame paste mixture is inserted in the middle, or decoratively pressed into the surface of the rice. (The beautiful green color is added – it doesn't come from the karela itself.) The sesame paste is made by grinding sesame seeds to a powder and mixing with a little water and jaggery. Other aromatic spicing can also be added, like vanilla or cardamom, although the sesame on its own is very nice.
Krsna devotees are likely to be familiar with ghee-fried bitter melon chips – a favorite prasadam item in many temples. These are extremely easy to make: simply de-seed the karela, salt it to remove some of the bitterness, rinse and dry, then thin slice and ghee fry the pieces until golden brown.
Whole fried Bitter Melons
Another wonderful way to serve karela is to ghee-fry the whole melon. You can do this with a combination of sizes, from very small and tender to melons up to 5 inches long. They should be fried for as long as possible without getting too dark on the outside, so they're thoroughly cooked inside. You can serve offer just 'as is', and let each person split and de-seed their own melon. Or, you can split them lengthwise, de-seed, and even stuff them with some other prep, like a chutney, before offering.
For a fancier preparation, make bitter melon chips in the usual way, but instead of thin slicing the pieces, cut the halved melon into thicker slices, 1 ½ to 2 inches wide. Take care not to break the pieces while frying, and drain gently. Meanwhile, make a paste by roasting a handful of cashews, then grind into a paste, and mix in some finely minced fresh ginger and minced red chilis. Once the fried karela is cool enough to handle, carefully stuff the pieces with the cashew mixture, stuffing them flush with the top edges. Put six or eight of these pieces onto a wooden skewer, and offer. This a nice looking prep, fun to eat, and very easy to serve. The flavor combination is also excellent – mid-way between a bitter, a sweet, and a savory.
Halved karelas really are the perfect vegetables for stuffing: they hold their shape without collapsing, they impart their flavor to the stuffing, and they look very nice on the plate.
There are as many ways to stuff a bitter melon as there are recipes for stuffing mixtures. You can use almost anything you can think of. Unless the stuffing will itself take a long time to cook, it's best to pre-cook the karela. After treating them to a salt bath, rinse and dry well, then partially cook them by steaming, sautéing in a little liquid, or frying them. Once stuffed, you can either bake, steam or pan-fry them to finish. Following is our recipe for stuffed karela, from the Sun's 'Raghava's Bag' cookbook:
Stuffed Bitter Melon
For this Stuffed Bitter Melon recipe, you can prepare the stuffing the night before, which only improves the flavor. The dish can be served hot or at room temperature, and keeps well for several hours before serving.
30 small (baby) bitter melons
1/8 cup salt
Chenna from 1 gallon milk and 1 pint cream
1-1/2 cups fresh or frozen peas
3 tblsp. ghee
1 tsp. celery salt
¼ tsp. nutmeg
½ tsp. asofoetida
½ tsp. turmeric
¾ tsp. ginger
Crushed red chilis, to taste
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tablespoon roasted ground cumin
Large pinch saffron, heated in 1 tablespoon milk
1 to 2 tablespoons jaggery, grated
Slice the bitter melons in half lengthwise and scoop out the center pulp. Lay them out in layers, one by one, liberally salting the insides. Add the next layer, salt, etc. Put a bit of weight on top (but don't break them). Let them sit for an hour, then rinse thoroughly, drain, and gently pat dry.
For the Stuffing:
Make chenna. Press for ten minutes, fluff with a fork and set aside.
Lightly steam 1-1/2 cups peas. Mash them, and temper with ghee, celery salt, nutmeg, asofoetida, turmeric, ginger, red chilis and black pepper
Add to the chenna: cumin, soaked saffron, jaggery and seasoned pea mixture
Mix thoroughly. Stuff the mixture into the bitter melon halves. Put two stuffed pieces together and lay in a baking dish. Bake at 450 degrees for 40 minutes. During the last 15 minutes, drizzle a little ghee across the top to help crisp them.
While stuffing the bitter melon, try to closely match the halves by equal size and shape, so the stuffing stays inside nicely. You don't need to tie or skewer the halves together if you're laying them in a flat pan, as this stuffing doesn't tend to dribble out. You only need to secure the halves if they'll be jumbled about, or if you're overstuffing them.
Offer hot or at room temperature.
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