Bittermelon and Brownies: How to Eat Bittermelons

No taste assaults us more than bitterness. Unlike our mammalian instinctive attraction to sweetness, a love for bitter is learned. It used to be standard practice that every Bengali mid-day meal would begin with bittermelon. Bengali children learn to swallow bitterness, some eventually grow to enjoy it but at some point all have to learn how to endure it. “It will clean your blood,” promised adults. The magical medicinal properties were supposed to offer redemption. From the bittermelon, I learned that things have properties and abilities beyond my experience. Apparently the unpleasant properties in my mouth accompany pleasant and beneficial properties for my body. There is more to what I taste.

In addition to the narrative of healing there were also a threat of future sweetness denied.  “You must eat the bitter to enjoy the sweet,” was not an abstract lesson. Strangely both my daughters enjoy bittermelon bhaji despite my continued aversion. Perhaps the narratives had stronger hold on them or maybe they inherited a high tolerance for bitterness from their father. Beyond the cultural narrative, bittermelon remains more than a vegetable for human consumption, more than all its qualities and properties of bitter, bumpy, seedy, green, organic, domesticated, transported, cultivated, eaten etc. Bittermelon represents a location in existence, in geography, in cultural narrative. When we invite the bitter-melon into our shopping cart, cooking pot and stomach attracted by its potential healing and nourishing powers, we also invite all the other factors that made the bittermelon possible. The bittermelon and I find each other as locations of existence, worlds colliding, along with the worlds of pots, refrigeration, trucks, grocery stores, Asia, Ayurveda, markets, plastic bags, oil, spices, salt, plates, earth, rain etc.

Ingredients (all quantities are gentle suggestions)

  • 2 Bittermelons
  • 2 small red potatoes (enough to be equal the sliced bittermelon)
  • 1 small onion
  • 1-teaspoon turmeric
  • ½ -teaspoon chili powder
  • Salt to taste
  • 3- tablespoons oil, vegetable, canola whatever you have.

1. Collect Ingredients.

You can usually find it in any Asian grocery store in the U.S. (to my surprise our local Kroger started carrying the strange vegetable among other distant geographical things). I wonder about the following questions: Doesn’t this counter the slow food local food movement? Is it wrong to eat Bitter-melon in the U.S. where it is not grown? Where does turmeric grow? Are onions and potatoes local? How are these ingredients grown? What is their history? How did people start eating bitter-melon anyway? How far is your grocery store? How are you getting there? What makes it possible for all the ingredients to be available? What makes it possible to gather all the ingredients on my counter? How many grocery trips? How many farmers, carriers, clerks, and stockers?

Or keep the seeds, your choice.

2. Slice the prickly bittermelon in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds using a spoon. Thinly slice each half. This might be a good time to use a mandolin. Massage the sliced bittermelon with a generous palm full amount of salt. Let slices sit and sweat for at least a half an hour. Then wash and rinse the sliced bittermelon with cold water, a few times. Let rest in colander and dry. The salt draws out the bitterness. This strange process can be emotionally instructive. As if, we need to draw out bitter emotions in order to wash it away. What happens when salt meets the bitter-melon? What is that relationship about? Similarly, kale, another bitter vegetable, needs to be massaged with oil in order to make edible raw. Does this make kale related to bitter-melon? This process of salting, resting, rinsing and resting (again) takes time and energy but makes the dish taste roasted and experienced instead of angry and bitter. The encounter of Lisa and the Bitter-melon requires a lot of preparation.

3. Julienne potatoes.  Keep skin on. The red potatoes hold on to their structure despite the stir-frying. Yellow or russet potatoes, although delicious, fall apart and are best saved for mashed potatoes. Neutral buttery potatoes have the magical power to temper the bitter and bulk up the dish with smooth sweetness. How does a potato grow in darkness? What is the relationship between the earth and the potato?

4. Thinly slice onion. Consider the all the things involved. Knife, cutting board, onion, hands, eyes, tears, kitchen, house, suburb etc. All these things come together in a particular way for the new thing “thin onion slices.”

5. Heat oil in a large saute pan so you don’t suffocate the vegetables. A crowded pan will make the slices steam and become soggy, instead of developing the delicious roasty bits on the edge. I too feel steamy and soggy when faced with a crowded room. Add sliced onion, turmeric, chili power and salt. Saute until your nose detects the slight roasting of the spices as they merge into the hot oil as one complex flavor.  Onions will become soft. Add a teaspoon of water if the spices begin to stick or burn.

6. Add bittermelon and potatoes. Toss and sauté on high heat until all the vegetables are coated in the spiced oil. As the vegetables begin to soften, lower heat to a simmer, place lid on pan and let the now roasted vegetables continue to soften in the steam, about 10 minutes. If the vegetables are old and dry, having traveled the world to get to your kitchen, the bhaji may need a tablespoon or two of water to help steam and soften.

7. Once vegetables soften, raise heat and fry once more without lid. This will dry and roast the now tender vegetables allowing the spiced oil to cling. Do not stir so much that the vegetable break up into a mush. The pieces of potato and bitter melon should keep their form. Restless stirring does not make things cook faster.

8. Serve with steaming hot plain white rice. This will probably feed 4-6 depending on your love of bitterness.

All this is only part of the story about when bitter-melon and I meet. As the bhaji enters my internal system it begins to remake me, as I had remade it. The mechanics of that internal world is a mystery to me. Even if someone were to explain the all the narratives of nutrition, digestion, biological structure and systems, it still would not begin to explain the existence of the grown, hollowed, sliced, salted, fried and digested vegetable. Everything has mysterious existential depth, even bitter things.

Bittermelons and Brownies: A recipe to grow myself

Everyday I find myself astonished and humbled by the infinite recipes for eating and living. My experience in architecture, philosophy, yoga and food has blended into a strange kaleidoscopic lens adjusting awareness, responsibility and joy in every interaction. I see cooking as transformative, as an event that helps me to take the other in, to consume, to enjoy and to cherish. My revised recipe for living now involves three considerations borrowing from yoga mindfulness and object oriented philosophy.

 (X)  Everything is a location in existence.

You, as a thing, are a dynamic location. You are a unique point in the stippled picture of the universe, never isolated, always responding. As is, everything else.

I borrow this from the practice of yoga that warns us against the misguided and egocentric belief that we are proudly autonomous or sadly disconnected.

X+  Everything is more than it appears.

You, as a thing, are more than your actions, emotions, body, race, religion, thought, features, likes, dislikes, you and everything you think you know is more than your assessment. You are hidden. As is, everything else.

Object oriented thinking and Graham Harman taught me to celebrate the darkness and depth of things. There is a philosophical generosity in accepting the unknown and resisting the drive for full disclosure.

 X + ( –X)  Everything is conditioned on what it is not.

Food is the visceral example of this. What is not you, sustains you. You are weird. As is, everything else.

Timothy Morton, the author of the Poetics of Spice (2006), Dark Ecology  (2016) and much more in between, talks about the “weird,” turning, twisting, looping non-linear causality and coexistence of things.

You, as a thing, are as a location in existence, more than what you seem and are conditioned by everything that is not you, and everything you encounter does the same.

Everything is a Point. Hidden. Weird.  Including, you. And, me.

Thing: {(X), X+, [X+(-X)]}

Keep reading. This is the master recipe I’ll be using in all food stories to come and to help me care about things I don’t understand. Let me tell you how to eat bittermelons and brownies, and a few things in between.

Bittermelons and Brownies – A recipe for growing Atiya

To my younger daughter Atiya, adjusting to a new chopped and blended family; I suggested four specific strategies beyond the injunction to be a strong independent woman. While Amani was born as I completed my degree in architecture where strength and uniqueness were primary virtues, Atiya was born during my graduate work in philosophy. In utero, she quietly listened to lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Aristotle’s Physics and Kant’s Third Critique. Her childhood rules reflect an awareness of time, a categorical responsibility and a sense of everything having a place. Six-year-old Atiya followed these four rules:

  1. Show up on time
  2. Finish what you start
  3. Clean up after yourself
  4. Keep your hair out of your face

It was a way to help her understand the importance of presence, engagement and responsibility. These were general rules applicable to many situations that helped her understand my expectations and helped me nag less.  The fourth rule “keep hair out of your face” was a later amendment, as her hair grew longer than her patience to care for it. Atiya is one of the most punctual, hard working, responsible and bright-faced women I know.

Amani and Atiya, you are both far better versions of me. Please don’t let my recipes limit you. I write these stories and recipes to help you write your own, not to follow mine. The recipe for growing girls has served you well but now is inadequate. You have both grown beyond simple slogans or prescriptions.

Bittermelons and Brownies: Introduction

Introduction: There are no recipes for Living

I begin with a disclaimer. I don’t follow recipes and nor do I expect you to. It is ironic of me to write a “cookbook.” I prefer expressed irony to hidden hypocrisy.  Irony is funny, inquisitive and open to other perspectives. Hypocrisy is not. These loose “recipes” are simply ways to remember that everyday we can be mindful and creative just by thoughtfully eating something.

I’m old enough to have experienced tectonic shifts in my own perspective. For me, in my 20s, self-sufficiency had been the mark of an adult.  In my 30s, as a mom and academic, productivity and efficiency had become my mantra. Now well into my 40s, I am the happiest I’ve ever been having shed my attachment to productive autonomy. Surely my thoughts at the moment are marked by where I am, a proud mom watching her baby fly. So take my words with a healthy dose of questioning and adjust to taste. Like people, recipes evolve.

Recipe for Growing Amani

When Amani was little she often heard me say “be a strong independent woman.” I may have been channeling my grandmother. Named after the Mughal emperor Akbar, Akbarunessa had a hard coating of authority about her, having lost her father and then her husband young. My grandmother cooked for herself, in a makeshift kitchen built into a corner of a long and wide veranda. In her little pot, the growing Dhaka city converged. She had two small gas burners and a sink not much larger than a loaf of bread. The old ice-crusted refrigerator stood awkwardly out of place in an adjoining bedroom. Her veranda kitchen hovered over a bed flowers and faced a garden complete with mango trees and flowering pulmeria.

The long winding and wrap-around veranda also held an easy chair, where she would recline and read with a cup of tea perched on the armrest. She spent her mornings hovered over her paring knife and vegetables. In the afternoon she would have lunch and then rest while listening to the radio. At four o’clock, she would make herself tea and wait for my aunts and mom to visit. At dusk she would water her garden with her metal watering can. Dinner at eight would be leftovers from lunch, carefully reheated over the stove in her tiny garden kitchen to the soundtrack of crickets. Her day ended by turning off the television and covering it with a large lace doily.

My seven-year old-self found this semi-solitary day lived by the beat of cooking and eating, strange and magical. She did all this in her corner of a large shared house surrounded by an even larger garden complete with mango, guava, papaya, eucalyptus, limes, roses, gardenia, jasmine and more. My uncle, her youngest and his family lived on the same floor as she did and we along with my mom, her eldest, lived on the second floor. It was a full house with at least two more large kitchens. But, my grandmother for whatever reason chose to cook and feed herself. I don’t know the history of the tiny makeshift veranda kitchen. I felt lucky on the occasions she invited me to eat lunch with her. For a no-nonsense stoic family figurehead, she was a surprisingly delicate cook. She cooked with calm, deliberate motions. Dare I say, she found cooking pleasurable. The only thing I didn’t like when I ate with her was the necessary Bengali first course:  bitter-melon bhaji and rice. It was the angry gatekeeper to a delicious fish or chicken curry to come. I still don’t like bitter melon but I have the fondest of memories around it.

Bad experiences don’t necessarily evolve into bad memories.

Thinking back, her odd self-feeding ritual despite being surrounded by family reads like a radical feminist effort to be self-sufficient. Maybe, for her, cooking was a statement of independence. Maybe it was a way to remain active and creative? I will never know.

I imagine for a little girl, “be a strong independent woman” seemed a harsh dictate. Amani, my first-born, is one of the most independent thinking, resilient and driven women I know.

Things That Cannot Die by Paige Riehl

A spoon in a cup of tea.
Letters in yellow envelopes,
the way a hand pushed lines
into the soft paper.
Morning laughter.
A white shirt draped
over her chair.
An open window. The air.
Call of one blackbird.
Silence of another.
November. Summer.
My love for you, I say.
My love for you infinity
times a million, my son says.
Sounds of piano notes
as they rest in treetops.
The road from here to there.
Grief, that floating, lost swan.

“Things That Cannot Die” by Paige Riehl from Suspension. © Terrapin Books, 2018. From Writer’s Almanac Podcast, August 13, 2019

This is not exactly a food poem although “a spoon in a cup of tea” is referenced. It does speak to the immortal intimacy of love and loss. Small things and endless things.

May you be surrounded by things that cannot die like laughter and love,


Food Poem – Death Again by Jim Harrison

Let’s not get romantic or dismal about death.
Indeed it’s our most unique act along with birth.
We must think of it as cooking breakfast,
it’s that ordinary. Break two eggs into a bowl
or break a bowl into two eggs. Slip into a coffin
after the fluids have been drained, or better yet,
slide into the fire. Of course it’s a little hard
to accept your last kiss, your last drink,
your last meal about which the condemned
can be quite particular as if there could be
a cheeseburger sent by God. A few lovers
sweep by the inner eye, but it’s mostly a placid
lake at dawn, mist rising, a solitary loon
call, and staring into the still, opaque water.
We’ll know as children again all that we are
destined to know, that the water is cold
and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far.

Jim Harrison, “Death Again” from Jim Harrison: The Essential Poems. from the Writer’s Almanac Podcast, August 14th, 2019

Food Poem- Eggplant by Richard Jones


by Richard Jones

I’ve never liked the taste,

which, I think,

is a shame,

because some days

when my wife goes to work

and I walk to the grocery store,

I stand in the produce aisle,

admiring those gorgeous

purple fruits––

wine colored,

sensuously curved––

and can’t help but reach out

and pick one up, just to hold it,

so silky smooth, so luscious looking

I almost fall in love,

but then remember

who I am:

a man not fond of eggplant.


I linger and look

and there in the bin

under the misters and lights,

I find it––

the perfect eggplant,

the glossy flesh unblemished,

meat firm under the fingers,

the stem and cap

bright green.

The fruit heavy in the hand,

I place the eggplant

in my cart,

taking special care,

knowing an eggplant is delicate

and wounds easily.

I carry the grocery bag home

through a light rain

and arrange the eggplant

on a white tablecloth,

the opulent purple orb

lustrous in the window light

and quietly beautiful

as if lying on satin sheets.

Then I sit in the wing chair.

The house grows dark

as the rain falls harder

and I wait for my wife

to come home from work,

shake off her raincoat,

turn on the lamp,

and behold the eggplant.

“Eggplant” by Richard Jones from Stranger on Earth. © Copper Canyon Press, 2018. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Writers Almanac, July 5th, 2019

Here’s what I’d do with a beautiful purple eggplant:

If a rainy summer day, fry sliced rounds smeared with salt, ground turmeric, and chilli pepper. Eat with flaky paratha/ flat bread.


If hot and sunny summer day, grill it until soft. Smash and mix it with salt, lemon juice, sliced onions, chopped cilantro, chopped thai chili pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil or mustard oil. Serve with bread or rice and light daal.


Cookie Monster and Oscar’s Guide to Life

As long as I can look back and say “There’s no way I could have been grouchier,” it was good day.

Oscar the Grouch, The Pursuit of Grouchiness

I aspire to Oscar’s about the author page… “Oscar the the Grouch doesn’t need to explain himself to you. He lives in a trash can on Sesame Street.”

My hero.

Early bird gets worm. But cookie tastes better than worm. So me sleep in.

Cookie Monster, The Joy of Cookies

Life, for me is a balance between the unapologetic self-acceptance of Oscar the Grouch and the laser focused cookie pursuit of the Cookie Monster.

These wise monsters demonstrate Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills of Radical-Self-acceptance and Meaning-making.

If there is a why, then a person can figure out the how.

Victor Frankl

Oscar the Grouch and the Cookie Monster know their “whys.”

I’m still working on mine. How about you?

Wishing you enough cookies to share and a smelly trash can to rest in,


How to Eat Like a Yogi

A long time ago there was a yogini, Giri Bala who lived without food – Yogananda tells us in the in the Autobiography of a Yogi. At age 12 responding to her mothers-in-law taunts that she eats too much, Giri Bala with the help of her Guru stopped eating in order to prove that humans are sustained by spirit not matter.

To me, Ayurveda, as a holistic medicine practice, is related to yoga as another practice of cultivating connection with the universe, others and within. I am drawn to the view of eating as a cosmic event where elements collide.

There are too many conflicting accounts of yoga principles to account for here. The details are less important or interesting. The idea that I am a location where streams of cosmic energies like earth, water, fire and air whip up into a special climate is fascinating. My encounters with others shape my physical, emotional and spiritual environment, my personal reformed and reflected universe.  For example, spicy food can fuel my anger, yet energize another.

This is certainly not a medical prescription, for weight loss, Ayurveda is a way to use food as a spiritual practice.

Here are the principles worth considering:

  1. The principle of Power: Everything has qualities and powers.
  2. The principle of Balance: Like qualities increases like qualities and balancing requires inviting the opposite quality.
  3. The principle of Doshas: Eat things with qualities and powers that balance your constitution (inside)
  4. The principle of Seasons: Eat things according to the season (outside)

When we pay attention, we know when we’ve eaten too much or too little, we recognize that something is fighting us in our stomachs resulting in gas or heartburn, we know when something smells or feels wrong in our mouth. If we mindfully eat and digest, we feel when we need something heavy and grounding and when we need something light and soothing. Usually, we don’t eat mindfully or pay attention to our bodies, we eat with our eyes, our memories, our expectations and worse, our stress.

Your stomach is your internal universe that transforms matter into energy. What is it craving now?

Being Extra: the sauce of life

I am an extra.

I am a non-speaking character in a coffee shop background sipping coffee and staring at my laptop. There are raindrops on the windows, a blade of grass moving in the wind outside, cars moving past on the road, murmuring conversations, a large orange sculpture, a concrete floor, a sneeze, a ding, words, a child’s cry, salt and pepper shakers, iphones, mugs, music wafting above the hum of mid-morning conversations, a green shirt, smell of eggs and coffee, fingers on the keyboard, people behind the counter waiting, people behind the counter making lunch, yellow road signs, an itch on the neck, words on the wall, wood tables, metal chairs, stripes and me.

I don’t despair being an extra. Extras in books, movies or television are never credited with names, just actions, like, “shop keeper” or “crying child.” I am a silent actor in your story, a voiced actor in mine. You can only see my actions, my role as an extra. You don’t see my inner monologue, my struggles, my joys, my worries or my guilt. Recognizing that I am an extra in the world, a silent actor is surprisingly empowering. As you walk by my table where I type, I can trip you or smile, I may not change your story but I color it with my actions. I don’t have to be the main protagonist. The main character depends on the extra. That is the secret: we are all extras. Being extra. I came to see myself as an extra and found an extraordinary life. I stopped trying to be named, stopped trying to be the main character, a proper noun.

Philosophy, art, religions all try to address our longing to connect to something larger, more meaningful than us. This is another attempt. An extra attempt.

We all share the small things, like coffee cups, salt, phones, chairs and walls and the big, like cities, roads, landscapes, clouds, and water. How we focus shape how our individual perspectives live and interact. You are an extra in the stories of almost everyone you meet today. You can probably count the people in your life who are essential on your fingers.

You are an extra.

Moving beyond identity politics, religion, gender, into object-hood into being extra. Being both more and less. Being Extra.

Depending on your outlook you could interpret the title “Being Extra” as either as being more, extraordinary or being waste, extraneous. We are always both: extraordinary and extraneous. It depends on your taste.

I arrived at this question when reading Adolf Loos’ modernist manifesto Ornament and Crime. All sauces he said was ornamental. The modern man eats roast beef. From my South Asian perspective, beef was ornamental, mostly used as a flavoring for curries and only the main component twice a year, weddings and celebrations when a sacrifice was offered. Always ritualized and associated with a momentous occasion.

Adolf Loos’ food example to explain modern architecture and design stuck in my thoughts.

What are your favorite sauces? Your favorite extras? Do you add spicy hot sauce to your dishes, maybe sweet-salty honey mustard, or maybe tart-sweet bbq sauce? How do you flavor your life?

Dessert is always extra, more than, beyond functional, ornamental and as a habit, dangerously unhealthy. Maybe that’s why we crave it. A British Toffee Pudding Cake draped in sweet toffee sauce is definitely extra. Here is a recipe.

Wishing you extra,