If you know me, you wouldn't have come here for a beautiful picture of the bittergourd-mango salad that is the subject of this post. (The photo is way down, this time.) What you will get, instead, is a discussion on the methods of de-bittering the bittergourd, and some memories stoked by the taste of this salad.
What worked for the short, plump bittergourd didn't suit the long one. And what I hoped would be a Mauritian bittergourd salad turned into "let's try this Sri Lankan recipe" and then into my own.
On the de-bittering first: I stuffed the short, plump ones with 'senagakaram', what you might call a chutney powder, a mixture of chana dal powder and spices. I followed Internet instructions and steamed them for five minutes above a bowl of boiling water after scraping the skin thoroughly - I believe the bitterness is concentrated in the bumps covering the skin, and I follow it religiously, but it has also been my experience that they never ever lose the bitterness completely. With this set of gourds, though, I couldn't detect any after they had been steamed, which was truly surprising. (I didn' taste them before I steamed them.) The Spouse has a closed mind when it comes to bittergourds and I happily consumed all the 10 specimens myself over two meals.
Then, exchanging messages with a friend, I came to know about a Mauritian bittergourd salad. What attracted me was the mention of raw onions in the salad. They add such crispness to salads, don't you think? She spoke of how the recipe calls for soaking the gourds in vinegar and something something, she trailed off, she could never bring herself to eat it. So I set about looking for recipes for a Mauritian bittergourd salad but didn't find any that I wanted to make. In one picture, the bittergourd even looked bitter. (Don't ask me how I arrived at that conclusion. It's one of those I-know-it-all opinionated conclusions which are usually way off the mark.)
The next day, I saw three normal-sized bittergourds in the supermarket so I bought those. I had also seen, by this time, recipes for bittergourd or 'ampalaya' salad in blogs of Filipino heritage, and saw some preparation manual where the bittergourds were saturated with salt and soaked in water. I couldn't find the same blog post later but went ahead from memory - and was disappointed to find that they tasted bitter even after the scraping, salting, soaking and rinsing.
But I'm no wimp - in matters of bittergourd, that is - and went on to slice them. I chanced on a Sri Lankan recipe but didn't have any of the ingredients mentioned except the onion so I abandoned that too. I didn't even have limes. I applied salt, chilli powder and turmeric on the bittergourd pieces, fried them and rested them on kitchen paper, then mixed them with an onion and looked unhopefully inside the crisper of my refrigerator. Hurrah, I had a mango! I cut and peeled one side of it and mixed it with the rest of the preparation. I added a little more salt.
(That's the salad in the foreground, in the picture.)
It tasted exactly like the 'mixture' that used to be sold in 'bandis' (carts) on the roads in my town in Andhra Pradesh, when I was a child. I don't remember seeing them later. I am trying to recall what the main ingredient was - peas/ chickpeas, most likely the former - I'm not sure now, but what joy it is to discover a recipe for a long-forgotten and forbidden treat! (I don't know how I got to taste it.) Now I'm wondering if the vendor used mangoes in his mixture. It used to be heaped into a soft, starchy mountain of yellow and red in a big steel plate. Maybe they added some roughly chopped tomatoes too. It used to be decorated with tomato and onion slices, and green chillis stuck out of it. I've tried looking for pictures on the Internet but all of them seem to be modern, chaat-type versions, which this was most certainly not. There was no ' 'sev' in it, no chaat masala, just plain salt and green chillies and chilli powder. I've also seen it sold on the beach in Chennai, long ago. The funny thing is, I don't know where to find those peas! If they were yellow peas, I haven't seen them in the stores. They weren't green. If they were peas, that is.
I have asked a cousin, she does not remember either, but she will ask her mother and let me know. Meanwhile, here's the recipe.
Bittergourd, scraped and sliced: 2 cups
Turmeric: 1/2 tsp
Chilli powder: 1 tsp
Iodised salt: 3/4-1 tsp
Onion, sliced: 1/4 cup
Mango, peeled, chopped: 1/2 cup
Oil: 4 tbsp + a little more to top up
Apply the spices to the bittergourd slices and fry in the oil.
(I don't know if my theory is correct, but to save on oil and oiliness, I use a somewhat deep, curved vessel that allows these slices to get more or less immersed in just 4 tbsp of oil - I'm not sure it's deep-fried, but it's not too shallow either.)
Drain on kitchen paper towels.
Mix with the onion and mango, taste and add some more salt if you like.