Crisp Bitter Melon and Stir-Fried Bengali Greens


Crisp Bitter Melon

Bitter Melon, or Karella as it’s called in Bengali is a violently bitter vegetable. To temper this and extract those mouth-puckering enzymes a good long salting is required. Once broken down into paper thin crescents, fried up crisply with cumin, chilli and salt and eaten with mouthfuls of steaming rice, it makes a delicious dish, one that’s simultaneously salty, crunchy, bitter and ever so slightly sweet. These alien looking vegetables resemble warty, tubercle-ridden cucumbers and can be found in most Asian shops and markets. This recipe works well as a side with a mild dhal as a slightly sweet foil to the bitter edge, or as the palate-rocking prelude to a more substantial feast.


3 small (approx 4-5 inches long) bitter melons

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

½ tablespoon mustard oil

½ tsp chilli powder

3 cloves of crushed garlic

1 chilli, thinly sliced

1 thinly sliced onion

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 heaped tsp cumin seeds


-salt the bitter melons about 45 minutes before you want to eat them: cut in half lengthways, scoop out the seeds and then slice as thinly as possible crosswise into crescents.

– place in a bowl, sprinkle on about 2 tablespoons of salt, combine well and leave for 45 minutes

– Rinse the bitter melon thoroughly, drain and squeeze out any excess moisture

– heat the oils in a wok or heavy frying pan over a medium heat. Add the mustard seeds and once they pop, add the garlic

– after about a minute add the chilli, onion and cumin, and stir fry until golden and yielding (about 10 minutes)

– add the bitter melon, turn the heat down a little and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently.

– Add the sugar and a pinch of salt (if needed) and stir fry for a few more minutes, until very tender, dark and crisp. Serve hot.

Stir-Fried Greens, Bengali Style


There are countless varieties of spinach available in Bangladesh, from ruby “lal” saag to the leafy tops of the jute plant; otherwise known as “Pat saag”. Pui saag or “Malabar spinach” is one of the more common (it’s sold in huge £1 bunches at Whitechapel market). Sometimes stir-fried with a few prawns for added flavour and texture, it has a slightly more “grassy” minerally taste compared to those plastic pillows of leaves so prolific in our supermarkets.



1lb of pui saag, (or substitute with chard/spinach/bok choy/morning glory)

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 tsp panch phoran/Bengali five spice (made up of nigella, cumin, black mustard, fenugreek and fennel seeds – or a scant tsp of each)

½ tsp chilli powder

3 cloves of crushed garlic

1 onion, finely sliced

½ tsp sugar

1 tsp salt


–  wash the greens well, drain and coarsely chop

–  heat the oil in a wok over a medium-high, add the five spice and chilli and stir for a few seconds

–   add the garlic and onions and continue to stir fry. Turn the heat down and continue to cook them out for around 10 minutes until very tender.

–  turn the heat up high and add the spinach. Stir fry until the first signs of wilting, about 1-2 minutes (depending on which greens you’re using).

–  add the salt and sugar and continue until tender throughout. Serve hot.


  1. When I was working in the Royal London Hospital I used to see these bitter melons in the market all the time. I never knew what they are or what to do with them.

    Next time I am in White Chapel I will pick some and give it a go.

  2. Oh brilliant – the bitter melon isn’t even deep fried! Thanks for the recipe!

  3. Yum, I love bitter melon when it’s paired with the right ingredients. Bitter melon with pineapple was a very memorable dish I had in a Yunnan restaurant in Beijing…

  4. Korolla is the one of the things my mum never, ever got to me eat! Approve of saag though!

  5. Hi Gastrogeek, my uncles would eat bitter melon sliced wafer thin and raw sashimi style with bonito flakes. Your recipe sounds much more up my alley. Violently bitter is right!

  6. The Chinese have a bitter melon equivalent, I don’t think it’s the same vegetable, but very similar indeed – I hear the kerela is a bit more bitter. I used to hate it as a child, and now I love it!

  7. I have always been curious about the bitter melon and I see them in abundance in Peckham but I’ve never got around to trying it. The closest I’ve come is when Bompas and Parr gave me some of those tablets that make everything bitter taste sweet and I was trying to get my hands on the most bitter things out there!

    I am going to take the plunge and try your recipe.

  8. gastrogeek

    Kano – I look forward to hearing how you find them!
    Su-Lin – thanks (although deep frying, now there’s a thought – you’re giving me ideas)…
    Helen- that sounds delicious, what a clever pairing
    Fastest- yes,my sister hates it too.I suppose it is a bit like the “marmite” of the vegetable world…
    Dennis- gosh, that sounds incredibly bitter!
    Lizzie – I had no idea, must check the Chinese one out -I’m exactly the same, hated the stuff as a kid and can’t get enough of it now!
    Helen – Wow,you’re so lucky to have gone to a Bombas and Parr event, am dying to go to one, they sound brilliant…I hope you like the recipe, would love to hear how you find it!

  9. Cool recipes! I recently discovered malabar spinach and absolutely love it, such a unique texture and mouthfeel. I’ve had, but never cooked, bitter melon. I look forward to trying yours.

  10. Dan

    Very interested in the crisp bitter melons. Call me naive but why “melon”?

  11. gastrogeek

    Thanks Barnaby!
    Dan – Good question, I have absolutely no idea I’m afraid! It’s also sometimes called “bitter gourd”

  12. Dan

    Rej, Incredibly useful post – I’ve seen these Karella out and about but had absolutely no idea what they were or what to do with them. Feel like Ive learned something here today.

  13. Interesting. In Nigeria, we use ground bitter melon seeds to make a soup with vegetables…Now when I say soup,I mean an ‘eating’ soup not a drinking one. Cool post

  14. gastrogeek

    Dan- thanks, be warned though, they are seriously mouth-puckering!

    Kitchen Butterfly – that’s sounds really interesting, will you post a recipe? I’d love to try that out. cheers!

  15. When I was growing up in Pakistan, we used to have “Karella curry”. Your pictures have served to evoke the taste of the curry made with ground beef and karella. Delicious. It used to be one of my favourites even as a child

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