Bringing Bitter Back

The 2015 December issue of Saveur includes a Bitter Melon tofu stir-fry recipe. It reminded me of my grandmother who would, much to my childhood discontent, insist on starting every lunch with Bitter Melon Bhaji. Worse, she would offer the second course, usually a delicious light fish or chicken curry, only after evidence of a finished bitter melon plate. Bitter Melon was the unwelcomed gatekeeper of lunchtime deliciousness.

My grandmother was a staunch believer in bitterness, a Bengali version of the British stiff upper lip. For her, all sweetness came at the price of bitterness. “The more you laugh, the more you’ll cry,” all the cousins joke. Bitter Melon wasn’t a vegetable, it was a philosophy. I had misinterpreted the lesson as a prescription to avoid the sweet, in order to avoid the bitter. Instead, it should be: accept the bitter and the sweet, equally. It makes life full and robust, a meal savored and stretched between bitter, salty, spicy and sweet. An appreciation of bitterness maybe a taste that is acquired by diligent practice and age. My love of cooking is no small part due to my grandmother’s slow, methodical, everyday practice of cooking. Here’s to you, Bubu.

I’d like to bring bitter back as a taste to be savored along with others, instead of avoided or feared. This is my bittersweet New Year’s Resolution: To finally embrace the Bitter Melons of my life.

Recipe for Bitter Melon Bhaji (Serve 4-6)

  1. Wash two or three bitter melons depending on size.IMG_2372

  2. Slice length-wise and scoop out seeds (some leave seeds in if melons are young)IMG_2373IMG_2374

  3. Massage with salt and rinse with cold water for a few minutes. Rinse. Drain. Let dry.IMG_2375

  4. Put 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a hot pan.

  5. Fry a medium sliced onion until soft and starts to brown.

  6. Add 1/2 a teaspoon of turmeric and salt to taste.

  7. Add a julienned medium potato.

  8. Fry until coated with turmeric. Bright and yellow.

  9. Add the bitter melon. Fry over gentle heat. Cover.

  10. Simmer, covered until potatoes and melon are soft and edges start to brown and caramelize.

Serve with warm white rice and digest all the day’s bitterness away.

Garden to Table


Summer garden bhaji is what I decided to make with my friend Meg’s gift of fresh veggies this week. A bhaji is basically a stir fry of shredded vegetables with turmeric, onions and other spices ( if desired). Meg’s garden bhaji was a combination of cabbage, green peppers and okra. I added the juicy red cherry tomatoes to a dry shrimp sauté. Some simple dal, lentil soup and rice complete deshi dinner night. Stir fry or bhaji is an easy solution to having little bits of a variety of vegetables.  A good wok is worth having in a busy kitchen. Mine just lives on my stove. This garden to table dinner is a product of west Lafayette, good friends who garden, south Asian cooking techniques and spices. Its a dinner that reminds me of my friend down the street with her bountiful garden, my Bhabi (sister-in-law) who first  taught me how to make a bhaji, my baby girl’s craving for “home food,” my southern-raised beloved’s request for dal and how I need to make this for my vegetarian, Indian-food aware friend, Kathy.  Food is magic in its ability to bring such diversity together, just like a mixed vegetable bhaji. 

Who inspires your dinner plate tonight?