I was in London a few weeks ago visiting my family. For me, this trip was all about my grandmother, or rather ‘plump ball of love’. My Plumpessa has been feeling a little poorly of late and lengthy conversations makes her very tired. One afternoon we were hanging out. Just me and her. Thinking she had fallen asleep, I started to flick through a cookbook. All of a sudden, she woke –up and began to laugh. She found the process of reading a book to figure out a dish highly amusing – ‘what drama..when we cooked, our senses guided us and when that was not enough, we sought advice from our elders, we asked questions and there was pleasure for both enquirer and informer.. the generation of today complicates everything’.
In such few words, she told me so much, and I realized that she wasn’t just talking about recipes. This was life, kids, relationships, finances and above all, the willingness to give and receive. She then perked up and started to tell me stories through her recipes – stories that encompassed grandmas, mothers, mother-in laws, aunts, and then daughters and nieces. One of my childhood favorite dishes was my grandmas bitter gourd. They looked like baby crocodiles and were as bitter in taste as a crocodiles temperament. An odd choice for a 6 year old. With many tricks up my grandmothers sleeve and a lot of love, she found a way to extract the harsh bitterness that left my palate with nothing more than a light ‘hum’ of its former aggressive streak.
The baby crocodile is stuffed with dry spices and caramelized onions and then pan roasted on a skillet. The texture is slightly leathery (..but in a good way, think fruit roll-ups) and the flavor is the coming together of opposites sweet, tart and mildly bitter. If you are wondering where to find these sharp green and bumpily textures, a trip to your local Asian or Indian store will be required – yes, a slight inconvenience for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Recipe for stuffed bitter gourd (aka, baby crocodiles)
4 bitter gourds
2 large yellow onions, finely diced
1 tsp. grated ginger
1 tsp. crushed garlic
2 tbsp. oil
1 tsp. mango powder – amchoor (available at your ethnic store)
1 tsp. coriander powder
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
½ tsp ground cumin
Heat the oven to 350 degrees
1) Wash the bitter gourd and scrape its bumpy surface
2) Slit along the top of its length without cutting through the to the other side (so it can open like a book)
3) Scrape the inside of the gourd to remove some of the seeds. Sprinkle with salt and set aside for 30 minutes to allow the bitter juices to extract
4) Meanwhile, sauté the onions, ginger and garlic until caramelized (golden brown and soft)
5) Add the salt and spices, sauté for another 2 minutes and remove from heat.
6) Wash and dry the bitter gourds. Brown them all over in a skillet, fill them with the onion mixture and place in the oven. Cook until the gourds are tender (approx. 20 mins)
Saira Malhotra, is of British –Indian descent and is a chef, food writer and cooking instructor based in New York City. Raised in Hounslow, U.K, or rather ‘Little India’, where the air is aromatic with roasted spices, little did Saira know these moments would follow her from being a student in France and Italy to residing in NYC with her husband and kids and parlay themselves unexpectedly in to a culinary career. She is a graduate of the International Culinary Center in New York City. Come visit her at her food blog: Passport Pantry, where she shares approachable and international recipes.