Karela (Bitter melon)


I’m all for trying new things. My philosophy is that I will try (eating) anything once, and I have discovered some delicious food over the years that I might have missed if I were less adventurous: raw quail eggs, goat curry, fried pickles, and kombucha, to name a few. In fact, my husband, B, often waits until I try something before he tries it himself.

Last year sometime, in a similar spirit of adventure, some friends of ours bought an unfamiliar vegetable at the farmer’s market. They had never tasted, much less cooked this particular vegetable before, but they wanted to try something new. Because it was so bitter and they didn’t know how to prepare it, they ended up throwing it away. Needless to say, they did not enjoy this vegetable. I love that they wanted to try something new, even if the experience left them with a bitter taste in their mouths (pun intended)!

Enter karela, or bitter melon. I’ll be honest: I probably wouldn’t have tried this on my own. Its name and appearance are a little intimidating, and if not for my in-laws, I wouldn’t know how to make it edible. Prior to my marriage, I had never even heard of bitter melon, but I’m so glad that I not only had the opportunity to eat it, but I can now make it and enjoy it myself.

Karela is typically eaten green (when it is most bitter), and there are several varieties, ranging from a wrinkled but fairly smooth exterior to a spiky-looking outside, and from dark green in color to white. I have seen at least three varieties at my local farmer’s market, though I have only tried the smoother green one; I hear they taste about the same. My in-laws claim that the juice can lower your cholesterol, and it is used in Asian traditional medicine to alleviate and/or cure various ailments. I just like the way it tastes (when cooked well!).

While it can be eaten raw, I prefer karela cooked. It is best to let the chopped pieces marinate in salt for a few hours, then squeeze out some of the bitter juice and rinse well–this reduces the overall bitterness of the vegetable. I’ve heard that blanching karela also reduces the bitter taste, but I have not tried this. Now, I’ll warn you–despite taking these steps, it will still be quite bitter. But karela’s unique flavor and texture is a lovely change to the vegetables you might usually eat.

The bitterness of karela pairs nicely with other Indian flavors, especially those in a spicy curry. And a little bit goes a long way–this is not the kind of dish that you will eat a heaping bowl of. Instead, enjoy it as you might a chutney or achar, breaking up the meal and cleansing the palate for another bite of rich curried meat or a saucy vegetable dish. I hope my adventurous spirit will inspire you to take part in some adventurous cooking and eating. And you never know: you just might find a new favorite food!


  • 1 karela, seeded and sliced in 1/4 inch rounds
  • 2 Tbl. sea salt
  • 1/4-1/3 cup coconut oil
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, sliced
  • green chilies, to taste (I used 3 green Thai chilies, but you can also use a jalapeno or a serrano)

To Cook:

  1. First, prepare the karela by washing it and cutting off the ends. Slice lengthwise and then remove the seeds and white pith by scraping them out with a spoon.
  2. Slice the karela into 1/4-inch rounds. Place karela in a bowl and sprinkle with about 2 Tbl. sea salt. Stir well and let sit for a few hours (the longer the better), stirring occasionally. This will draw out moisture and some of the bitterness.
  3. When you are ready to cook, gently squeeze the karela and drain whatever liquid has accumulated in the bowl. Rinse the karela several times with cool water and drain well.
  4. Heat the coconut oil in a large skillet over medium heat until hot.
  5. Add the karela and stir to coat, making sure the karela slices are evenly spread out in the pan.
  6. Let cook, stirring occasionally, until the color changes to a light greenish brown and the edges begin to brown.
  7. Drain some of the oil and add the sliced onions and chilies. Cook until the onions are completely cooked but not burned.
  8. Remove the cooked karela with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel before transferring to a serving dish.
  9. Enjoy!

Sliced lengthwise, before removing the seeds and pith.

Seeds and pith removed

Sliced into 1/4 inch rounds

Sprinkled with salt

Cooked up and ready to eat (this batch is actually a bit overcooked, but it is still delicious!)

This post is linked to Kelly the Kitchen Kop’s Real Food Wednesday blog carnival.

  1. Can we eat raw karela?

    • Yes, you can eat raw karela, but it is very bitter, so I would recommend soaking it in salt and/or sugar for a few hours to draw out some of the bitterness.

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