Karela's sweet cousin, a delicacy in the hills

The little-known vegetable grows abundantly in Uttarakhand and people either eat the baby karela raw or cook it as a vegetable

By Megha Prakash
Published: Tuesday 20 August 2019
meetha karela
Though the vegetable is called karela, it  smells and tastes like cucumber (Photo: Megha Prakash) Though the vegetable is called karela, it smells and tastes like cucumber (Photo: Megha Prakash)

The onset of winter transforms vegetable markets in Uttarakhand into a visually delightful landscape — from brightly coloured fruits and vegetables to a variety of greens. During a recent trip to a local market in Kotdwar, a small town in the state, I heard a local vendor calling customers to buy fresh meetha karela.

“The vegetable grows wild in the hills and local people sell it for Rs 30-40 per kg,” said a Garhwali friend who was accompanying me. I turned to the vendor selling this bright green thorny vegetable with curiosity.

A small talk with the vendor revealed that though it is called karela, it smells and tastes like cucumber. When I asked how it is consumed, he told me that people in the hills either eat the baby karela raw or cook it as a vegetable.

Many names; many recipes

A native of South America, meetha karela (Cyclanthera pedata) belongs to the Cucurbitaceae family. It grows in abundance in Uttarakhand at a height of 1,500 to 2,000 metres and is known by many names.

In Uttarakhand and in the nearby Tarai belt, it is called pahadi karela, Ram karela, parmal or kankoda. In neighbouring Nepal, it is called badela. According to a legend, Ram karela gets it name from the fact that during exile, Lord Ram relished eating it.

When I was growing up, my mother used sugsu or sukha (meaning sundried in Garhwali) karela, says Reena Negi of village Laingla in Pauri Garhwal district. She says that in harsh winters, her mother would soak the sukha karela in hot water for half-an-hour before simply cooking it with onions, tomatoes, wild mustard seeds (jakhiya), coriander powder and turmeric. But it can be prepared as a gravy too.

Traditionally, meetha karela comes in handy when unexpected visitors come home or when large families have to be fed. A mix of flour or paste of water-soaked rice is added to the cooked vegetable to make the gravy thick (aalan in Garhwali). The gravy is served with steamed rice or chapati.

In Garhwal, some local people gently scrape the soft thorns on the vegetable’s skin before cooking, while others don’t. Vijay Jardhari, founder of the Beech Bachao Andolan who lives in Jardhar village, Tehri district, Uttarakhand, says a few years ago the roasted black seeds of meetha karela were eaten by the local people during winters, but now it is not common.

The black seeds inside the fruit spill out during the summer months of March and April. During monsoons, the vine starts fruiting profusely. This is the only vegetable which arrives in early October and lasts till December. Local people pluck and deseed them. It is then thinly sliced and sundried to be consumed later in the winter when food is scarce.

“This year the production of pahadi karela was abundant, as compared to other vegetables, due to unprecedented rains and that’s why the vegetable has flooded the local markets,” says Ajay Rastogi, founder of Foundation for Contemplation of Nature, a non-profit located in Majkhali village near Ranikhet in Almora district. Another reason for the vegetable gaining popularity is that the previous state government organised fairs to popularise it and asked local hotels to serve pahadi (hill) cuisine.

Ideal for hill state

Of late, self-help groups have begun to experiment by making badi (nuggets) and pickles out of this humble gourd. Meetha karela grows in the wild. Since it grows in plenty in the hill state, Raj Narayan, principal scientist with Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s Central Institute of Temperate Horticulture in Mukteshwar, says the vegetable can be explored for commercial cultivation.

It is a suitable crop for the hill state because it is not infested by pests and does not need any special care. The germplasm of pahadi karela is registered with the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources in New Delhi.

Though the vegetable is popular among the local people, there are only a few studies that have documented its nutritive values. Research suggests it is rich in iron, antioxidants and has blood purifying properties. Though the nutritive value of the vegetable in India has not been calculated, a study in Brazil says that it has calcium, magnesium, sodium (0.91 mg/100 g) and potassium (152 mg/100 g).

The study was published in Food Chemistry in 2014. Efforts are now underway to study it in greater detail under a project on underutilised vegetables by scientists at the Veer Chandra Singh Garhwali Uttarakhand University of Horticulture & Forestry in Bharsar in Pauri Garhwal.

Meethe karele ki sabzi
  • 500 g fresh pahadi karela
  • 2 medium-sized tomatoes
  • 2 medium-sized onions
  • Slit green chillies
  • 4 tbsp coriander powder
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp turmeric
  • Mustard oil for cooking
  • Salt to taste

After a thorough wash, keep it aside for about 30 minutes to drain off excess water. Slit the karela in half and remove the black seeds. Cut the pahadi karela into thin slices. Add a generous amount of mustard oil in a flat-bottomed iron kadhai (frying pan). Heat till it fumes. Add cumin seeds and let them splutter; add green chillies and onions. Cook until golden brown. Now add salt, diced tomatoes and then add coriander powder and turmeric. Allow the spices to cook. Now add the sliced karela. Cook for 10-15 minutes till tender. Serve hot with chapati or rice.

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated November 16-30, 2018)

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