Karela (Bitter Gourd) Stuffed with Sweet & Tangy Tomato Filling

In one of my very favourite novels, Tamarind Mem, Anita Rau Badami weaves the evocative family saga about a young graduate, Kamini, whose mother Saroja was known for her razor-sharp tongue and convention-challenging ways. In order to soften her mother’s direct manner, and make her more “marriageable” her grandmother would feed her bitter gourds, or bitter melons.

I grew up aware of a bitter gourd for every aliment, but, like with the okra and wild spinach, I steered very clear of those pots.

On a recent visit to my folks in Kwa-Zulu Natal, I came upon these alien-looking nubbly, wrinkled vegetables (they are actually fruit). I tweeted a photo of them and almost instantly received the reply that they were karela, or bitter gourds. They are tropical or sub-tropical vines, and the fruit vary in bitterness. Popular in South East Asian and Chinese cooking, bitter gourds are valued for their medicinal properties. It’s best to use the young gourds and to follow a strict method of soaking in a saline solution to remove the bitterness. I took a small selection home to Cape Town, much to the amusement of my mother.

Before embarking on my karela preparation, I researched many methods on how to remove the bitterness. The best explanation re the soaking and osmosis method can be found here. This site also explains karela’s medical uses and various cooking preparations. A second soak in plain yoghurt or buttermilk is sometimes recommended, but I avoided this, as I needed the karela to be as dry as possible before stuffing, filling and frying. I also decided, as you can gather, to stuff them with a rich sweet and tangy, spiced tomato and ricotta filling.

In the end we (husband and I), braved our way through one karela each. The filling is gorgeous and the melon far less bitter than I anticipated, but still I felt I needed a badge of honour for just completing the task. Adventure food if ever there was one.

In very interesting news, our housekeeper loved these and did not seem to mind the bitterness. The same housekeeper who doesn’t care for eggs, chicken and a variety of other very commonly eaten foods. Much research has been done in the field of taste receptors and in particular, bitter taste receptors and the hereditary influence of genetics – this could possibly have something to do with it.

That, or old Cynthia is trying to mess with my mind.

slice one end of the bitter gourd to remove the seeds


4-6 small karela

40 ml olive or vegetable oil

1 small onion, finely diced

1 red chilli, chopped (optional)

1 t cumin seeds

1/2 t turmeric powder

1 t medim hot masala

2 medium sized tomatoes, diced

1 T tamarind, soaked in just enough hot water to cover

1 t palm sugar

4 T ricotta

5-7 leaves mint, finely chopped

salt, to taste

bitter gourds stuffed and pan fried


Slice the ‘tendril’and one end off the karela. Soak in a heavily salted water solution for 15 minutes at least. Remove.

Use a long dessert spoon or a knife (carefully) to remove the seeds. Some of the seeds are a bight red which is such a pretty contrast against the yellow flesh of the melon. Rinse again and try to shake as much of the water out. Leave in a colander to drain.

In a pot on medium heat, add 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add onions and fry till translucent.

Add chillis, the cumin seeds, turmeric and masala, stirring for 30 seconds.

Add tomatoes, tamarind water (strained free of seeds), sugar and salt.

Cook till it thickens.

Remove tomato mixture from heat and allow to cook slightly.

Add ricotta and mint and mix well.

Slice the kerala down one side, careful not to cut all the way through. Dry well with kitchen paper towels (inside and out).

Stuff the karela with the tomato and ricotta filling.

Heat remaining oil in a pan. Fry the karela till soft on both sides, turning carefully as the filling may spill out, about 5 minutes.

Serve hot with a chilli sauce or sambals if preferred.

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