It might look ugly but this vegetable sure has some personality. Even though it cares the least about the people eating it, it is somehow still able to get people to respect it. Well yes, I am talking about bitter gourd. I don’t know many people who can eat this vegetable without frowning. In this manner, the bitter gourd manages to establish its presence in the eater’s mouth. It is however not unknown that most people tend to keep this vegetable away from their food preparations as much as possible.

The bitter taste of this vegetable continues to exist in a mild form despite the various measures taken to get rid of its originality. No matter how much you boil it, there is some form of bitterness hidden within the masala make up that it’s forced to masquerade under. It is therefore characteristic of the bitter gourd to not lose its identity. The vegetable that seems to be the least worried about the people eating it. The universal truth is that old men and women, children, young boys and girls all prefer to acknowledge and admire fruits and vegetables that pretend to be nice to them. But what do you do if the fruit or vegetable refuses to listen to your order or command?

Our mothers are especially trained to tame vegetables using various torture methods. In the case of bitter gourds, the strategy used is brutal yet effective to some extent. Bitter gourds are usually chopped down to circles, dressed up in salt and chilly powder and made to lie down under the hot sun until it’s drained completely of moisture. Even after torturing them so much, there’s still a little bit of bitterness that’s retained leaving just enough opportunity for kids who are fussy eaters to yap dramatically.

Most women in my family(my amma, ammachis, chittahs and ammayis)think it over carefully whether they should drop in this vegetable into their food preparations or not. What if their beloveds scoop in a portion of this vegetable, along with a greedy fist full of rice and dumps it into their open mouths without noticing? What if the taste leaves them disheartened till the next meal appears magically on their dining table?

At home, the bitter gourd is now mostly an uninvited visitor. We usually don’t buy them at home. They make their way into our kitchen only when they’re born in our garden. Bitter gourd babies demand to be pampered and cared. To hide them away from the vicious eyes of birds and other plant predators, they’re usually covered with old newspapers. Under the blankets of newspapers, they change colours from parrot green to lemon yellow – as if they’re mad at us for not showing them enough sunlight.

From a distance, bitter gourd babies look like sleeping baby bats. When they make their way into our kitchen, they are placed on the waiting list of vegetables spread neatly over an old Malayalam newspaper (usually the Sunday’s paper but I don’t know why) awaiting their expiry dates. Different vegetables have different expiry dates. Vegetables like yam, potatoes, onions, bitter gourd and ash gourd are left unnoticed for ages. Vegetables like carrots, radish, snake gourd etc. are treated like VIPs and provided accommodation in the lowest rack inside the refrigerator. Just because it has a thick outer skin doesn’t mean that the bitter gourd would never rot. When the time comes, quick decisions are made regarding sending the bitter gourd to whichever curry mix possible.

In the earlier stages of freshness, the bitter gourd is sliced, dried and fried. In a much latter stage of freshness, it is sent to plunge into sambar and in the in between phase of freshness, amma prepares something known as paavaykka theeyal, a special dish that calls for the bitter gourd in a squishy consistency. Well you may not actually see the vegetable as such in the dish, however you could feel its presence in the form of taste within the blob of coconut oil and dissolved onion. If left ignored for over a week, then the bitter gourd becomes food for the cows or snack treat for the coconut trees in our backyard.

The bitter gourd is rarely ever prepared alone. It is mostly accompanied by coconut shreds. Almost as though the coconut serves to butter up and counsel the depressed tongue that had just tasted bitter gourd.

Maybe I want to be like this vegetable. There is something magically realistic about this mysterious vegetable that makes me love it so much while most natural human beings prefer to stay away from it. Is it this concrete self -confident character of the bitter gourd that I admire the most about it? Or is it the boldness that it shows even after being ignored and frowned upon so much?

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Philip Victor

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