Karela Bhaji (Pan-fried Bitter Melon)

I’m going to be upfront with you – if you don’t like bitter foods, you probably won’t like this week’s recipe. Much as I’d like to tout that I’ve developed a way to eliminate the bitter momordicin compounds which make this vegetable one of the most astringent foods on the planet, that’s just not going to happen. But, there’s a bit of fun to be found in diving into this historically medicinal gourd; a new taste sensation is especially exciting for those who prefer their coffee black.

In truth, there are a few tricks to make bitter melon more palatable. First, salting and squeezing the melon extracts some of its bitter juices. Pairing the bitter melon with tangy amchur (green mango) powder, sweet coconut palm sugar, and a generous amount of spices also help balance the overall flavor. Finally, giving the melon slices a nice crisping near the end of cooking, and garnishing them with fresh cilantro as they come off the heat, give the dish an ideal texture.

There are two main varieties of bitter melon: the warty, light green Chinese cultivar, and the spiny, dark green Indian version. Both work fine for this recipe, but I prefer the exotic look of the Indian variety.

Karela Bhaji - Pan-fried Bitter Melon (Gluten-free, Paleo, Primal, Perfect Health Diet)

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy

1 lb Indian or Chinese bitter melon
1 ½ tsp salt, divided, more to taste
1 tbsp ghee
2 tbsp avocado oil
½ tsp cumin seeds
¼ tsp fennel seeds
1” ginger, grated
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
½ tsp garam masala
½ tsp ground coriander
¼ tsp ground turmeric
¼ tsp kashmiri red chili powder
¼ tsp black pepper, more to taste
1 tsp amchur (green mango) powder
2 tsp coconut palm sugar
½ cup chicken stock
fresh chopped cilantro to garnish

1. Slice the bitter melon in half lengthwise; using a spoon, scrape out and discard the seeds and pith. Slice the melon into ¼” slices, then transfer to a colander suspended over a mixing bowl; sprinkle with 1 tsp of the salt and drain for 30 minutes. Gently squeeze and blot the melon dry to extract some of its bitter juices.

2. Warm the ghee and oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering; stir in the cumin seeds and fennel seeds, and toast until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Stir in the garlic and ginger and saute until aromatic, another 30 seconds, then reduce heat to medium and add the onion, coriander, turmeric, chili powder, pepper, and remaining ½ tsp salt. Saute until the onion is softened, about 6 minutes. Stir in the bitter melon and chicken stock, and saute until the melon is tender and the liquid has mostly evaporated, about 10 minutes, stirring often.

3. Stir in the amchur powder and sugar; increase the heat to high, and pan-fry until any liquid has evaporated and the melon and onions begin to crisp, about 3 minutes, stirring often to prevent burning. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then serve garnished with cilantro.

Note: In the year leading up to my new cookbook’s release, I will be regularly releasing these recipes to 1) maintain a continuing conversation with my readership and 2) give visitors to this site an opportunity to test and provide feedback before editing. For more information on this new approach, read my post here.

24 thoughts on “Karela Bhaji (Pan-fried Bitter Melon)

  1. I personally have only tried the Chinese version and it’s not my top 50 vegetables. The taste against let say soy sauce makes it less bitter, but more sourly to me. But many many Asians eat bittermelon to lower blood sugar. I understand it creates more insulin to lower blood glucose. I’m not a medical professional, but it’s a food item that older generations swear by.,


  2. Haven’t tried this recipe, but I do have a KILLER recipe for pickled bitter melon….it starts out by slicing them open, salting them heavily and letting them “weep” for several hours, then rinsing well and proceeding with the pickling.


  3. My family makes this but with coconut pieces and mustard seeds (because we’re from Kerala). I love it! Thanks for featuring another variation here.


  4. Hi Russ, really want to try this recipe but cannot find fresh bitter melon anywhere for sale in the UK. Could I substitute frozen? I’m assuming I would just defrost and prepare as per your recipe? Thanks


  5. Very interesting recipe. I’ve heard some people saying that vegetables slow down ketosis simply because physicians dictate you to consume meals with high levels of fat in order to get the body used to eat less. Nevertheless, vegetables are necessary because they not only contain vitamins but the carbohydrates that the body is really meant to consume. Particularly coming from veggies that are not very sweet like celery. I further discuss this and other related topics in this podcast: https://goo.gl/nvdKpR?drericbergpodcast


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