I have always talked about how Bengalis love bitterness, not in life but definitely in their food. A traditional Bengali lunch will almost always begin with some bitter preparation of Bitter Gourd or bitter tender Neem leaves. This is in sync with Ayurveda, with the concept of cleansing your palate before you delve into more complex and rich food.
Of all the bitter foods that we Bengalis are subjected to since childhood, I would say Bitter Gourd or Uchche is the meekest. After years of being subjected to chirotar jal ( chirota, a plant whose leaves were soaked in water to make a bitter concoction), first thing in the morning on weekends you do start appreciating uchche. Even thinking of chirotar ras gives me the shudders and makes me glad that I grew up and have enough liberty to declare a chirota free house.
And then there was Kalmegh, the nightmare. See the name, KalMegh loosely translates to Dark Cloud. How could something that sounded so ominous be pleasant ? As a child if my nature at any times turned from sunny to irate or my tantrums over exceeded the usual quota my Ma attributed the behavior to worms in my tummy rather than behavioral dysfunction(??). Backed with my Dida's support she treated me to kalmegh er bori (crushed leaves of the dreaded kalmegh shaped into pellets) or kalmegh er ros(juice of kalmegh leaves) which were supposed to be potent enough to get rid of worms. Actually she even got a bottle of Kalmegh extract for S which of course I did not dare to use on the unsuspecting child
Truth be told these herbs/medicinal plants did work wonders for the system and my Ma went through a lot of effort to prepare such concoctions. If only I drank them religiously instead of pouring them on the Tulsi in our balcony, I would have flourished today instead of the "still growing strong" Tulsi
Though I have got over those bitter plants, bitter gourd or uchche is a staple on the menu at my home almost every other week. D loves it(yewww !!) and S eats it dipping it in a bowl of yogurt.
Uchche bhaate or Bitter gourd boiled/steamed and then mashed with potatoes, drizzled with mustard oil and salt is the most common thing on the menu. Though we don't add the potatoes any more and serve it just with little mustard oil and salt
Uchche Bhaja or Fried bittergourd is another simple preparation where you chop the bitter gourd in thin slices, smear them with little turmeric and salt and let it sit for 15-20 minutes. You then fry them in smoking mustard oil(any other white oil works) till they are crisp. I usually shallow fry and so mine are not as crispy as my Mom's
Next is the Uchche Begun which is a dry preparation of Bitter Gourd and soft velvety eggplants. Cooked with minimum spices, the eggplant complements the bitter gourd beautifully and yet does not undermine it. When had with steaming rice it is a beautiful starter preparing your palate for better things to come
Uchche Begun/ Bitter Gourd and tender eggplants
Prep: Wash and chop two medium sized bitter gourd to small pieces. Wash and chop two medium sized Japanese eggplants, the long slender ones, in small cubes
Heat Oil(preferably Mustard Oil but others work fine) in a Kadhai/Frying pan
Fry the eggplants with 1/4 tsp of turmeric powder till they are soft and lightly browned. Do NOT deep fry as in begun bhaja
Remove and keep aside
Temper the oil with 1/2 tsp of Kalonji/Nigella seeds and 5-6 slit hot Indian Green Chillies
Add the bitter gourd, sprinkle a little turmeric and saute till they are soft. Usually I cover and stir in between with a sprinkle of water to hasten the process and not to make the bitter gourd crunchy
Once they are soft, add the eggplants
Add salt, mix all nicely together and cook till both the veggies are done
The end result is a bitter medley of eggplant and bitter gourd. Standard way of eating is mixed with white rice
Other dishes with bitter gourd:
Uchche Posto Jhuri