Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bitter Melon, Daal, & Mango Raita

Mulling over what to feed some dinner guests yesterday, I decided that I pay too little attention to some of my very beautiful cookbooks---you know, the type that are in hardcover with breathtaking photos, so you sort of feel like your messy, frazzled dinner-makin' self shouldn't be allowed anywhere near them. Well, my copy of Mangoes and Curry Leaves definitely has some oil splotches that it didn't have yesterday morning, but I have no regrets. I tried 2 recipes from the book, then made up a side dish at the last minute to balance out the flavors on the table.

Bitter Melon

Most exciting thing first: BITTER MELON! I read the recipe first, and realized only later that bitter melons are the funky green cucumber-lookin guys with skin like a crumpled ribbon that you see every so often in Asian or Southeast Asian markets.

Step One for cooking these guys is to slice them open lengthwise to remove the big, bright red seeds:

Slice them paper-thin (a mandolin would be helpful here), and, to draw out some of the bitterness, use a technique similar to how you'd cook an eggplant: Salt them well and let them sit in a colander (so liquid can drain out) for at least 45 minutes. Then rinse them thoroughly and squeeze 'em dry with paper towels. I don't think I got the salt out quite well enough, leaving my final results a little too salty, so be vigilant.

Anyway, here's the recipe (page 159) once they're prepped.

2 Tb neutral oil (eg grapeseed)
1 TB mustard oil, or replace w/more neutral oil and 1 tsp hot mustard powder
2 tsp garlic paste or finely chopped garlic
1/2 tsp cayenne powder + 2 thinly sliced green cayenne chilis (I had no chilis so increased the powder)
1 cup thinly sliced onion
1 tsp sugar (I increased to taste to counteract the bitterness)
1/2 tsp salt (unnecessary if you fail to rinse well enough!)
And, my addition: 2 tsp garam masala.

Heat the oil in a wok. Stir-fry the garlic and spices for 15 seconds, then add the onion and
sliced chilis; stir-fry until very soft. Add the bitter melon, reduce heat to medium, cook for 15 minutes - until very tender. Add the sugar and salt; once these are blended, you're done.

As I mentioned, I increased the sugar and added garam masala to counteract the pungent bitterness (and oversaltiness in my case) of the melon. The final flavor is delicious in the same way a very stinky cheese is delicious... logically, it tastes kind of foul, but you want just a little bit more. I wouldn't sit down and gobble up a bowl of bitter melon all by itself, but as part of a meal with a mild daal and cool, fruity mango raita, it was yummy.

Udaipur Daal

This is going to be a quick, go-to Daal recipe for a long time. The beauty is that you can cook your lentils ahead of time, and then throw in the flavorings right before eating. It's incredibly flavorful and just a teeny bit spicy. In the book, this is "Udaipur Urad Daal" (page 189 - Udaipur = the Rajasthani town where the authors were given this recipe), but I didn't leave myself time to cook Urad daal, so I used my usual pink lentils.

If you have 3 or 4 cups of cooked lentils sitting around, so much the better. I didn't, so I put 2 cups pink lentils on to boil, with enough water to rise about 2 in above the lentil-line. (This made about 6 cups cooked, but the spices stood up to even this quantity).

As for the flavorings:

1/4 cup sesame oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
5 black peppercorns
1/2 cup minced onion
1 minced green cayenne chili (I used 5 minced tiny Thai chilis, as I already had them around)
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cayenne powder (left it out - the chilis were enough for me!)
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves

Heat the oil over medium high heat. When hot, throw in the mustard seeds and heat, covered, till they pop. Add the peppercorns, onion, and chili. Cook over medium heat for 10 mins, till the onion starts to brown. Add the turmeric, salt, and cayenne, then pour the mixture into your cooked daal (which should be very, very tender and broken down). Add the garam masala; simmer to mix flavors; and throw the cilantro in before serving.

I served this over long-grain red rice.

Mango "Raita"

Finally, I decided we needed a cooling agent on the table. I had a very ripe mango (intended for another cooking project that never quite happened), so I chopped it into small cubes and mixed it into some good Greek yogurt. A teaspoon of cumin, squirts of lime juice and agave nectar, and this made a lovely, sweet-tart-cool counterpoint to the bitter melon in particular. (In fact, I'm thinking of using my remaining bitter melons and mangos and trying to make some kind of chutney, as they really set each other off beautifully).

As I couldn't find any naan or flatbread when I did my shopping, I picked up some plain white pitas, and fried them a bit in a skillet with a little ghee, some minced garlic and chopped cilantro.

Altogether it made for a colorful table... and will keep me very happy all week in the fridge at work.


  1. I need to find the naan recipe Jill gave me from when they lived in India! It is super easy and I think it was delicious for those who could eat it.

  2. Awesome, yes, share the Katelyn-poison!!

  3. You eat such strange things. You and your cumin.

  4. My next recipe will go

    "Put some cumin on some cumin with cumin."