Bitter Gourd in a palate clearing sweet and spicy tamarind gravy – mom’s recipe
It was end of the 90’s and the beginning of my hostel days. The very first time that I was on my own, in a place far enough from home and certainly with no access to home food. Home sick I was, like hell. Except, once a month when Amma would come to see me. Religiously, I would look forward to the first week of the month, because I could get to see Amma, spend the special day catching up and end the day co-sleeping, sharing the same hostel bed, chatting away into the wee hours until we fell asleep before she left early the next morning. More anxiously, because she would bring with her my life sustenance stash; a basket full of home made, hand made goodies – an assortment of pickles, preserves, chutney podis (typical South Indian spice mixes), a bottle of ghee and my favorite Haagalkai [ haa gul kaa yee; kannada ] Gojju. A stash which I would guard with my life, eat just enough in a day to ensure that it lasted until her next visit a month later or sometimes, a couple of months later. Knowing that I had home food with me was a great comfort, as it brought life to the hostel food, an otherwise insipid and listless kind of food none needs an elaboration on, I presume.
It is said that distance makes the heart grow fonder. It was always there, but was not until the chapter of my hostel days that I realized just how much of a fondness I had developed for bitter foods and Bitter gourd in particular, probably one, not many can identify with. Bitter gourd was introduced to me much early in life. Growing up in a joint family in my Tatha’s (maternal grandfather) house with a dozen and a half different palates for role models, a picky palate was simply not a choice or at least could not be out rightly flaunted. A liking for Bitter gourd was entirely my choice, however.
Back then, this Gojju was made very often and always in a small brass vessel, food safe alloy lined of course and placed in a wide wicker basket later on. To me, the thought of Gojju is almost inseparable from the mental picture of Haagalkai Gojju in that brass vessel and wicker basket. Hence this picture, the way I remember it. Fascinating, how some things are etched so clearly in our minds!
The more time I spend looking back in time at my grand dad’s orthodox kitchen that I grew up eating from, the more I have begun to realize how deep-rooted South Indian cuisine is into Ayurveda. Traditional food served on a banana leaf had a meaning and purpose for each and every kind of dish as well as appropriate placement for it. That is how food is served even now during marriages or other auspicious ceremonies, only people are disconnected from its significance.
Gojju has a very vital role in the grand scheme of the cuisine. With almost all the tastes sweet, sour, bitter, hot, salty in the right proportions, it has a balancing effect on the system. It is palate clearing, rejuvenates dull taste buds, stimulates the digestive system and aids in increasing the stomach acids in a good way. The more I realize the goodness of our culture and regional cuisines, the more I feel bad on how much we take them for granted, enough to let go of them in search of modern food and new cuisines.
In the modern world, with its modern foods – fast foods, packaged foods, convenience foods etc, which are all about pleasing the taste buds with salty or sweet, bitter is obsolete. Bitter taste has an important place in our overall health. It brings every other taste into perspective, resets the taste buds and helps us appreciate the goodness of sweet in appropriate amounts. Naturally bitter foods like bitter gourd, fenugreek, kale or citron keep cravings in check, are blood purifiers, help the body eliminate toxins, lower blood sugar, are immunity boosting and great for the metabolism.
Many people either hate Bitter Gourd or do not know how to cook it to be palatable. This recipe is a sure opinion changer. I can tell you that.
This is my Amma’s recipe and a cherished, all time family favorite! After a number of unsuccessful tries, I can say this time it came close to 90% of Amma’s Gojju taste. The other 10%, I believe is her magic and love which only her hands can conjure up.
Love or hate, which side are you on with bitter foods? And what does your favorite Bitter Gourd dish taste like?
Haagalkai Gojju – Amma’s recipe
Things you’ll need:
4 medium sized bitter gourds / bitter melons
about one big lemon sized tamarind
3 small cubes of jaggery (about 6-7 tbsp crushed)
2-3 tsp Saaru podi
1-1/2 tsp black sesame seeds
salt (about 3 tsp)
5 tbsp peanut or any neutral oil
6 green chillies, sliced into thin rings (optionally, remove seeds to reduce heat)
2 sprigs of curry leaves, finely torn
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/4 tsp turmeric
a big pinch of hing / asafoetida
How it’s done:
Wash Bitter gourd, towel dry, slit into half and scoop out the seeds, trim the ends and chop finely. Discard the seeds or plant them.
Soak tamarind in about 1-1/2 cups of warm water.
Mean while, crush jaggery in a mortar and pestle to a coarse powder
Dry roast black sesame seeds in a skillet or kadai on medium heat until they swell up and begin to splutter. Do not burn. When cooled, crush to a coarse powder in a mortar & pestle.
Heat oil in a kadai or heavy bottomed pan on medium high heat. When oil is hot and shimmering, add mustard seeds. When they begin to splutter, add chopped green chillies and torn curry leaves and sauté until chillies turn white, followed by adding hing and turmeric.
Immediately, drop chopped bitter gourd into the pan and stir fry on medium high heat until wilted and light brown. Do not cover at any point.
Squish the tamarind to a thick pulp. Strain the pulp and pour juices over over the bitter gourd quickly before the steam rises. Add a little more water to the remaining tamarind pulp if needed and repeat to adjust the consistency. Discard the pulp if completely used.
Season with salt and Saaru podi, stir well and gently simmer uncovered until oil leaves the sides and the Gojju has thickened to a semi solid consistency (like chawanprash) about 15 – 20 mins.
Sprinkle coarsely ground roasted black sesame seeds and crushed jaggery, stir to mix well and switch off once the jaggery melts.
Taste and adjust salt and spices to suit your taste.
Let it cool completely, without cover before storing away in an airtight glass jar. Tastes best the next day after the flavors settle.
Savour it mixed with hot steaming rice and a drizzle of Ghee. Also goes well with Chapathi, Dosa and the like.
Black sesame seeds usually come with a lot of tiny stones. Pick before using.
Saaru Podi can be substituted with homemade or store bought rasam powder or just red chilli powder if you have none of those at hand.
Brown sugar may be used as a substitute for Jaggery, but cannot replace the taste of Jaggery.
When made correctly, the result will be a perfect combination of sweet, salty, hot, sour and bitter without a single trace of bitterness overpowering. If after tasting the next day, if you feel the need for adjusting the taste, place it back in the kadai on heat, adjust seasonings and cook for a few mins on low to fix it.
Stores well up to 3 days at room temperature and up to a week in the refrigerator, it never lasts that long in our house though.
This recipe works equally well with Citron / Naarthangai / Heralekai, another classic bitter fruit.
Bitter Gourd Buying Tips:
Buy smaller light colored bitter gourds that look fresh, shiny and are firm and crisp to the touch with no spikes damaged or bruised. Darker ones are more bitter. Avoid gourds that are tending toward yellow.