By Ranjini Rao Mar. 21, 2017
I hated karela as a child and I’m now left to deal with my daughter, who is so averse to bitter gourd that she won’t let it anywhere near her plate.
When you grow up in the South, you are expected to know several gourds by their quirky names, peculiar aftertastes, and whatever else their horoscopes spell. Bulb, snake, ridge, bottle, ivy, and ash. But the most dreadful of them all, capable of striking fear in the hearts of the most strident enthusiasts? Bitter.
It helps that I had a logophile grandpa, who anglicised all sorts of local vegetables when they were brought in. I invariably forgot their names in the vernacular. But nothing could help me forget the distaste I had for this ugly, shrivelled veggie.
I’d hated bitter gourd for as long as I could remember, and my mother’s painstaking attempts – as is wont in any Southie household – to smother it in jaggery-sweetness, garnish it with a liberal shower of coconut, douse it in tamarind-sourness, or spike it with heat and heeng, often fell flat on their faces. There was no way I could be cajoled into eating the blessed thing. But it hovered and hung around closely, in all its particularly foul glory, for a large part of my childhood.
My best friend had to be treated for habitual thumb-sucking with a lavish slathering of bitter-gourd pulp. While I completely empathised with her, I wondered how she continued to suck on it, because she didn’t kick the habit for years. My diabetic aunt had to be administered bitter gourd juice every so often. And of course, my mother loved it so much, she considered it a divine blessing no less, and cooked it often. So in love was she with it – and so intent on troubling me with it – that when I’d ask her what was for lunch on the days that she had cooked bitter gourd, she’d say, “I’ve cooked whatever God has gifted me on this day!” That would whittle down to a single-word warning in my head: Run! This also applied to a handful of other food items, like an uninviting, gummy mound of upma; gloppy strings of spinach in a dal mash up; radish in sambar, emanating that all-too-familiar fetid smell. But I digress.
They were hardly bitter, just perfectly spiced and crispy to the first bite, and I couldn’t stop at just one.
I remember scampering from house to house in the neighbourhood, on “God’s gift” days, asking what was on the menu. My aunt, a family friend, and my sister, all lived a hop, skip, and jump away, and to my misfortune, there were times when all these people had received similar gifts from the Almighty. On the days that there was no escape, I would close my nostrils and eat a spoon or two of bitter gourd gojju, and hyperventilate until sugar was brought to my rescue.
It wasn’t until I got married to a Bengali, however, that I realised just how deep the fondness for this alligator-esque vegetable could be. The sheer variety of bitter gourd preparations in that household was mind-boggling. Quite a few of those recipes rendered the bitter gourd nearly unrecognisable. Salt-cured and boiled to a gooey mush, to be mixed and eaten with rice; rubbed with turmeric and spices and shallow fried until the pieces looked like burnt rings; mixed in with other passably edible vegetables in a panch phoron seasoning. But above all, routinely cooked in the other thing I was also repulsed by – mustard oil. The first few attempts at chewing on it at the family table were pathetic at best, leading to a steady build-up of bile in the gut, threatening to spill out in front of my unsuspecting in-laws.
I tried every trick in the book to avoid it: I’d fling some across to my husband’s plate, sneak some into a napkin under the table and dispose of it when no one was looking, pretend to be really full with just salad and the first course with the gravies. Until one fine day, something snapped.
I couldn’t believe myself, but I no longer seemed to mind the black rings. Hell, I think I’d actually developed a curious liking for them. They were hardly bitter, just perfectly spiced and crispy to the first bite, and I couldn’t stop at just one. There was no explanation for my transformation, except divine intervention. I also liked it when it was stuffed and shallow-fried (in a lot of mustard oil, no less), and the spicy besan filling overrode any bitterness that was left in it.
God has been kind. It’s been years since, and today, I can not only cook it in a dozen-odd ways, I can also eat it with a respectable degree of grace at the family table. However, karma, as they say, comes to bite you back in the butt.
I’m now left to deal with my America-born child, who is so averse to bitter gourd that she won’t let it anywhere within a mile’s radius from her plate, lest it “contaminate” her food. I am reminded of my own hapless mother who must have tried a dozen jumlas to partake of this gift from God.
I once went so far as to bribe my daughter with a trip to her home country, to get her to eat at least a few bites. She responded with a stern, “Stop it! I’m not a kid anymore!” Those weren’t quite the words we were expecting from an 11-year-old, so we prodded her with, “Then what are you?” At which point she quipped, without batting an eyelid, “I’m just a growing human who likes tasty food.”
That’s a comeback I have no answer to. Maybe with time, she will grow to love the karela just the way I did. My only real regret is that I was never armed with the growing human-tasty food argument when I was growing up.
Ranjini is a Mom, writer, teacher, and head-hasher (mostly in that order) living in Bangalore. She finds her chi in the kitchen, amid arrays of spices, frayed napkins and stainless steel kettles. She blogs at Tadka Pasta with a partner.