Guest Post by Pameladevi Govinda
As a child, a mouthful of bitter melon is borderline punishment. I abhorred the intensely flavored, gnarly looking gourd from my toddler years until I was well into my late twenties, but my Mauritian-born parents loved the stuff. Mauritius, a barely perceptible spot on the atlas, situated in the Indian Ocean, is a tropical country where the cuisine is rich on sour and bitter tastes. It wasn’t until a vacation spent on the island in 2001 that I found my rite of passage, through the bitter corridor of a gourd so to speak.
According to a Wikipedia page bitter melon “…is a tropical and subtropical vine of the family Cucurbitaceae, widely grown in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean for its edible fruit, which is among the most bitter of all fruits.” In India bitter melon is known as “karela” and in my parents native Mauritius it is called “margoze.” Mauritius was colonized by the French and, later, the English. The local language is creole, and there’s a saying on the island, “Le temps margoze,” in reference to hard times.
As a wine professional and budding Mauritian home cook, I often experiment with different wines to pair with bitter melon. Success has been found in several bottles of Muscadet, Manzanilla Sherry, and sous-voile wines from the Jura. For my latest Mauritian-inspired feast I wondered if I could find a wine from one of the most unlikeliest of wine regions: Alto Adige (the food of Südtirol couldn’t be any more different to the spicy repast of Mauritius). The bitter tastes in karela are reminiscent of the stony mineral notes found in the best high-elevation Alto Adige whites. If I paired like-with-like perhaps the wine would have a chance to stand up to a mouthful of bitter components.
My menu consisted of slow-cooked beef brisket (highly unorthodox but tender, fatty and delicious nevertheless) curry and bitter melon sautéed with a pinch of turmeric, ginger, garlic, a finely chopped hot pepper from my mother’s garden in the seaside town of Flic-en-Flac (precious cargo brought over from my last trip to Mauritius) and salt.
For New York City denizens, karela can be found at Dual Specialty Store (91 First Ave) in the East Village and at a number of shops along Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn. For this occasion I headed to Spice Corner (135 Lexington Avenue) in Murray Hill, conveniently located around the corner from Vino Fine Wine and Spirits (121 East 27th Street), where I picked up a bottle of the Castel Sallegg 2010 Moscato Giallo. Aromatically pretty, the wine offered notes of orange rind and peaches, while the palate offered a hint of saline mineral, good acidity and texture. It was a good pairing, though I can’t help thinking that the wine would be better with a lightly spiced samosa stuffed with potatoes and peas.
The best pairing of the night actually stemmed from the Gumphof 2010 Vernatsch Schiava, purchased from Thirst Wine Merchants (187 Dekalb Avenue) in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. Light in tannins, with moderate acidity, and juicy vin-de-soif fruit, I served the wine with a slight chill. The light, bright character lent itself well to the brooding bitter melon, while lifted fruit tempered the spice.
Bitter melon is said to be a blood purifier, have anti-carcinogenic phytochemicals and is meant to aid in the control of insulin levels. Health benefits aside, if you’ve got a taste for what the French and Mauritians call “amer” [bitter], this recipe is for you.
4-5 medium size bitter gourds
1-2 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon of minced or grated fresh ginger
1-2 finely chopped Thai peppers
4 tables spoons olive oil
Wash the entire fruit. Chop off and discard the tips of both ends of the gourd, then slice in half lengthways. With a teaspoon, scoop out the seeds and inner white flesh. Thinly slice and toss into a large bowl filled with cold salty water. Chop 1-2 (depending on how hot you like it) Thai peppers, finely mince 1-2 cloves of garlic and a small piece of ginger.
Heat olive oil in a large frying pan or cast iron skillet. Add bitter melon and sauté for about 5 minutes. Once the fruit starts to soften, add garlic, ginger and Thai pepper. Season with salt and continue to cook on a medium to high heat. When the gourd is al dente, toss in a pinch of turmeric powder and continue to cook until it is slightly browned and fairly soft but not mushy. Remove from pan and transfer into a bowl, squeeze in a little lemon. Finish with good quality sea salt such as Maldon Sea Salt.
Pameladevi Govinda is a wine and travel writer based in Brooklyn. Her published work and blog can be viewed at www.gajackattack.com.