Sunday, November 4, 2012

On the Love of Specialized Instruments

The CC owns something called a "bird beak paring knife". It's a paring knife with a curved beak (presumably like that of a bird.)

Mostly it's used for carving stuff - you know, edible roses and stuffed cherry tomatoes. The kinda fussy stuff which the CC generally doesn't get to very often.

It originally came in a package set and has been gathering dust ever since.

The CC has finally found a very good use for it. It's perfect for de-seeding and de-pithing the inside of a bitter melon when you want to stuff it.

The stuffing for this recipe is from Kashmir. Specifically, it seems to be a relatively modern vegetarian adaptation of what must inevitably originally have been a Mughal meat dish.

That it is a vegetarian response to the original marriage of Mongol and Persian traditions to Indian spices can hardly be in doubt. That it happens to feature the altogether New World potato means that it can be no more than 250-300 years old (long enough for the potato not only to cross the shores but enter into a routine upper middle-class vocabulary.) There's a variant that uses paneer which may be marginally older. (And then there are hybrids which are just the normal evolution of any dish.)

Even if you don't end up stuffing bitter melons, do make this recipe. It would be amazing stuffed in just about anything - peppers, tomatoes, zuccini, squash. It's all about the spices.

Several versions are presented below. Feel free to pick from any of them because the magic is in the texture and the spices. In fact, the CC guarantees that you will have to stop yourself from stuffing yourself just from the stuffing.

Just for full disclosure, this recipe is definitely "fussy" and time-consuming. Its origins clearly lie when emperors had armies of cooks from whence it filtered down into homes with cooks from whence it filtered down into regular homes where the wives stayed at home all day and were bored. It's not going to jive well with modern sensibilities but it made a lot of sense when the CC was cooped in all-day after a pesky little hurricane.

Q: What does he do when he's bored?
A: He stuffs fuckin' karela's.
E: Nice!

For the modern-day readers' convenience, short-cuts are suggested but you will definitely miss out on some of the textural element in the dish.


8 bitter melons (prepared - read below)


1 large red onion
4 green chillies (finely diced)

Meat or Potatoes

3 large potatoes
2 potatoes
1 cup crumbled paneer
2 cups minced meat

Spice Mix 1 (Whole)

1 tbsp fennel seeds
2 tbsp nigella
2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp chilli powder
2 tsp dried ginger (substitute by fresh)
3 tbsp amchur (dried green mango powder)

Spice Mix 2 (Ground fine)

2 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tbsp garam masala
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds


First prepare the bitter melons. You need to scrape them clean till they are pale green and look like naked dead skinned green mole rats. Using a very sharp paring knife, cut them length-wise gently making sure that you don't slice them down the middle. This is harder than you think because every once in a while you will encounter a hard seed. Have no fears! Jump over the seed and continue. The problem will fix itself.

Gently with your fingers separate it along the edges. Be careful of both ends. They have a tendency to break. Using the bird-beak knife (or your fingers), gently reach inside and start scraping away at the seeds and the pith. This will take a few tries but as it does you will notice that it becomes easier and easier. (This was a surprise to the CC!)

There are pesky seeds at either end of the length of the bitter melon every once in a while. It's quite tough but you can do it! They must be removed.

You will have eight stuffable bitter melons which you need to thoroughly rinse and set aside until they dry.

When dry, thoroughly salt the inside and the outside of the bitter melon. Set aside in a colander for at least an hour. At the end of the hour, you will notice that the bitter melon has turned very very soft and flexible because the salt has changed its celullar structure and drawn out quite a bit of the bitterness. Thoroughly wash the melons both inside and outside one more time and set aside until they are dry.

Meanwhile, while the bitter melons are salting, prepare the stuffing.

The potato needs to be diced into what the French would call a small dice. You could do a brunoise but then you would really have to be extraordinarily bored. (Crumble the paneer with your hands into tiny irregular pieces.)

Hurrah, meat-eaters! You have something over the granola's after all. You don't need to do anything. All the prep above is doing is simulating the texture of ground meat.

The onion also needs to be diced really fine. So the meat-eaters can't really escape from the prep after all. Welcome to the jungle, my friends!

(Since the CC promised short-cuts, you can just dice the potatoes and do a quick mash with a potato masher in the pot and let cook for an additional 6-7 minutes. However, not the same. Be aware, be strong!)

In a large shallow pot with a lid, fry the onions and green chillies till the onions are translucent. Add the first set of whole spices, and fry for about 30 seconds. Add the potatoes (or meat) and fry for about 6-7 minutes till it changes color. Add water and cover.

Let cook until done. It's different for different versions. At least 15 minutes for either one, and possibly a tad more for the vegetarian versions.

Uncover and let cook till it's relatively dry. Toss in the second set of spices and mix thoroughly.

Let the stuffed mixture cool down.

Stuff the bitter melons. (Try not to eat all the stuffing. You will attempt anyway. You will be hunted down like the animals that you are by your own families so beware!)

You can pre-prep this recipe upto this point and let the stuffed vegetables sit in your refrigerator for a few days.

In a shallow skillet with a lid that can hold all the bitter melons, heat up some oil. When it is shimmering add the stuffed bitter melons gently face-down and let them fry for about 7 minutes at medium-high heat. Turn them over gently with a pair of tongs and let them fry for an additional 4-5 minutes. Gently add about a cup of water and cover the lid. Let cook for about 10 minutes on a very low flame till they are completely tender.

Serve with some parathas and some raita.

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