A jaggery-sweetened, bitter melon and cashew stir-fry.
This kaju karela nu shaak is a Gujarati dish made with ghee-coated crunchy cashews, chewy and plump golden raisins, and jaggery-sweetened bitter melon. It is a sweet, spicy, and bitter curry!
I know bitter isn’t an adjective you normally see in a food blog, but there’s no avoiding it here. We’re using bitter melon, which is, by nature, bitter.
But if you’re a bitter melon fan, then you know, this is the good kind of bitter. This is the kind of bitterness you crave.
I want to tell you that the bitterness isn’t that bad, but I know “isn’t that bad” isn’t going to convince you to try something new. And I’m not even sure I want to work to convince you – because if you’re not a food adventurer, then this isn’t the right dish for you.
The fact is that bitter melon is an acquired taste. Once you’ve acquired the taste, it’s so good. I’m not a beer drinker (never acquired the taste, heh), but I imagine it’s like that. I mean, no one likes beer at first, right?
What is Karela?
If you’ve never seen karela, it looks kind of like a prickly cucumber.
Karela is also known as bitter melon or bittergourd. It’s a vegetable believed to be native to India.
According to food historian K.T. Achaya, karela was first mentioned in early Jain literature around 400 BCE. In his book, A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, he writes that “the practice of debittering the bittergourd by steeping it in salt water and washing it” is mentioned in 16th-century lit. I find it interesting that this method has been around for so long. People have been eating this vegetable for ages, and have probably been trying to remove its bitterness the entire time. That brings me to both ask and sort of answer my next question lol…
Why would anyone eat bitter food?
I think a lot of people like bitter things in moderation. Coffee is bitter. Green tea is bitter. Cacao nibs are bitter.
But bitter melon is extremely bitter. Still, many of us genuinely like the vegetable. Maybe because we were exposed to the flavor while growing up. When you combine bitter melon with other ingredients, I think you’re able to help mellow the bitterness to a level where you can maybe appreciate it more. Though the bitterness never disappears completely.
But why eat bitter food?
Well, Ayurveda, an ancient Indian medical system (which, for the record, I know very little about), encourages eating six tastes to maintain health and balance. Those six tastes are sweet, sour, salty, astringent, bitter, and pungent. In her book, Feasts and Fasts History of Food in India, food historian Colleen Sen writes that “in both Ayurveda and Unani, bitter and astringent foods are prescribed for diabetes.”
I think a lot of people eat bitter melon for its purported health benefits, though if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, I’d avoid eating it. Feel free to google for more on pros/cons of eating this vegetable as I’m not an expert. I eat it because I like it.
A Gujarati Dish
My friend Shilpa’s mom, Rashmi aunty, taught me how to make this sweet, spicy shaak (the word shaak just means cooked vegetables). This is one of aunty’s signature dishes, perfect for every day or a party (as long as you know your guests enjoy bitter melon).
It took a few attempts and facetime phone calls with aunty before I was able to adapt the recipe to an instant pot, but I’ve got it just right and now, I’m excited for you to try it too.
I have a few karela recipes already on the blog (stuffed aloo karela and masala stuffed karela), but I think this preparation is my favorite. This kaju karela shaak is different from my other karela recipes because there’s no onion or garlic. It’s sweetened with jaggery and raisins, which helps to balance the bitterness. And it calls for crunchy cashews which add a nice contrast in texture.
Again, karela isn’t for everyone. My 4-year-old acts as if I’m trying to poison him when I give him bitter melon. On the other hand, my toddler surprisingly seems to like bitter melon, at least in this recipe – likely because of the jaggery. I gave him some bittermelon for the first time while testing this recipe (he was 17 months at the time), and he appeared to genuinely enjoy it; he even clapped his hands! He’s in the “I’ll eat anything” phase, which as all parents know, lasts for a very short time, haha.
Bitter melon is a vegetable that requires a second, third, fourth chance. You may not like it right away, but over time (weeks, months, maybe years), you may find yourself craving it. If you’re new to bitter melon, this recipe is a great one to try. And if you’re already a fan of bitter melon, then I’m sure you’ll enjoy this dish.
- ⅓ cup water
- ½ cup powdered jaggery to taste
- cilantro garnish
To prepare the bitter melon:
- Slice the bittermelons in half lengthwise and remove the seeds and pulp.
- Slice the halves into ½ inch semi-circles, put them in a bowl and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of salt and mix well (the salt will help to remove some of the bitter juices). Set this aside for 30 minutes, stirring the bowl around the 15-minute mark. Gather the remaining ingredients together while you wait. Rinse the bitter melon slices really well with cool water.
- Press sauté and adjust the heat to the highest setting, add oil and once it’s hot, add the cashews and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes, or until golden. Remove the cashews with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil in the pot. Set the cashews aside for now.
- Add mustard seeds to the oil and when they begin to sizzle, add the hing and stir, then add the bitter melon, raisins, spices, and stir. Pour the water into the pot and mix well.
- Secure the lid, close the pressure valve, and cook for 3 minutes at high pressure.
- Quick-release pressure
- Press sauté and adjust the heat to the highest setting, add the jaggery and mix well. Now let the mixture simmer for 5 minutes to reduce the liquid in the pot (you will be tempted to stir, try not to – it needs to boil off liquid).
- Once the liquid has thickened, stir-fry for 5-6 minutes, keeping the stirring to a minimum at first to help caramelize the jaggery and bittermelon.
- Add the cashews back to the pot, mix well, garnish with cilantro, and serve.