Bitter Melon (Bitter Gourd) Sambar

Visit the Indian Food Glossary for information on the ingredients in this recipe
bitter gourd

May the fruit of the bitter gourd reside in every morsel of mine
~ from "Kshema Kutuhalam", an ancient Ayurvedic text as quoted by Jigyasa Giri and Pratibha Jain

If you've grown up in North America, there's a very good chance that you've never eaten bitter melons, if in fact you've even heard of them — and that would be a shame. Also known as bitter gourds, bitter melons have a fresh crunch that tastes like something between zucchini and cucumber — except, of course, far more bitter. But while deserving of their name, bitter melons are also powerhouses of nutritional and healing benefits that are highly esteemed in India and much of Asia, where the vegetable is considered a tonic for stomach complaints and the listless appetites of the elderly and the sick. Also considered to have anti-viral, anti-anemic and even anti-diabetic properties, you don't need to be suffering any maladies to enjoy a rich source of iron, beta carotene, calcium and potassium and good source of fiber, phosphorus and vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 and C that should give bitter melons a prominent place in any nutritionist's dossier.

Fortunately, bitter melons are also widely available here in any Indian or Chinese grocer, and the bitter taste — difficult to acquire on its own — is easily moderated by cooking with rich and spicy flavors as in this hearty and colorful sambar, adapted from Chandra Padmanabhan's delightful compendium of South Indian cooking "Dakshin". Served with every South Indian meal, sambars are vegetable stews cooked with toor dal (pigeon peas) and flavored with tamarind and ground spices — bitter melons perform an admirable contrast with these rich tastes and make an astoundingly flavorful dish that is delicious served with hot freshly cooked rice.

bitter melon sambar

As with toor dal, tamarind, jaggery and other ingredients in this recipe, bitter melons are easily found in Indian and Asian grocers. The immature fruits of a vine plant, Indian bitter melons are not difficult to identify by appearance — short green oval gourds with a skin covered with "warts" and ridges. Chinese bitter melons have a paler and less stippled appearance — either variety can be used, and first comers may want to consider that Chinese bitter melons are a little less bitter in taste. Avoid bitter melons that are starting to turn yellow — these should be discarded — and refrigerate in a plastic bag no more than a few days before cutting and using. Gently wash the skins of the gourds, cut off the ends, and slice lengthwise to scrape out the seeds and fibrous tissue before chopping and cooking.

One further note — good commercial brands of sambar masala or sambar powder are also easily available at Indian grocers, but to get the vibrancy of a spice blend made fresh at home, just follow this very simple recipe here.

Bitter Melon (Bitter Gourd) SambarBitter Melon (Bitter Gourd) Sambar
Recipe by
Adapted from Dakshin
Cuisine: Indian
Published on December 5, 2011

A spicy and very healthy South Indian curry made with bitter melons, one of the most extraordinary and beneficial vegetables

Preparation: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour

Print this recipePrint this recipe

  • 1/2 cup toor dal (split pigeon peas)
  • 3 tablespoons tamarind paste
  • 1/2 cup raw cashews, dry roasted
  • 2 cups finely chopped bitter melon (2 to 3 bitter melons)
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons sambar powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 2 teaspoons jaggery or brown sugar
  • 1 large tomato, finely chopped
  • 3 cups water
For the paste:
  • 1/4 cup fresh grated coconut
  • 2 teaspoons ghee or olive oil
  • 6 dried whole red chilies, broken into pieces
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon chana dal, rinsed
  • 1 teaspoon urad dal, rinsed
  • 1/2 teaspoon asafoetida
For the tempering:
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
  • generous handful of dried curry leaves
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk
  • Rinse the toor dal thoroughly and soak for 30 minutes in 2 cups of hot water. Place the toor dal and the soaking water in a medium heavy-bottomed pot, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium low, and cover and simmer until the dal is soft, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside without draining.

  • Meanwhile, prepare the coconut. Drain the coconut water by punching holes in the sides of a fresh coconut and set aside. Now split open the coconut and grate it into a small bowl.

  • Now make the paste. Heat the ghee or oil in a skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the dried red chilies, coriander seeds, peppercorns, chana dal, urad dal and asafoetida, and fry for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until the mixture is fragrant. Remove the mixture to a blender or food processor, add the grated coconut, and process until it forms a grainy paste.

  • In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat 1 cup of water over medium heat. When hot, add the tamarind paste, chopped bitter melon, salt, sambar powder, turmeric and jaggery or brown sugar. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring frequently, until the bitter melon is soft and tender, about 15 minutes. Add the paste and tomato and simmer for another few minutes. Now add the undrained toor dal and continue to simmer, adding more water as desired.

  • While this mixture is simmering, prepare the tempering. Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. When hot, toss in the mustard seeds and cook until they turn grey and begin to splutter and pop. Toss in the curry leaves, stir, and add to the sambar. Simmer for a few more minutes and add 1/2 cup of the reserved coconut water just before serving. If too dry, add some extra coconut water to achieve your desired consistency.

  • Garnish with the roasted cashews and serve with naan bread or rice.

Makes 4 to 5 servings

Other South Indian sambar recipes from Lisa's Kitchen:
Homemade Sambar Masala Powder
Butternut Squash Sambar
Carrot Sambar
Black-Eyed Pea Sambar

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by J Morris Hicks


Jamie said...

I wondered what those things are. I see them in the small ethnic grocery stores close by where I live in Toronto. Now I know what they are ... and how to cook them up. Thank you, Lisa.

vegetarian said...

Looks delicious! need to try this! bookmarked for later used! thanks for the great recipe!

Johanna GGG said...

I've never seen them or eaten them (as far as I can remember) - they look so pretty that I want to try them - so will keep your advice and your recipe in mind for if and when I find one

Priya Suresh said...

Just love bittergourd,sambar is one of my fav dish with bittergourd,looks invitign.

Kaede said...

The one time I had bitter melon, it was so bitter it tasted like aspirin. I am not kidding. Is it suppose to be that bitter? Or did we have a "bad" batch with ignorant cooks compounding the problem?

Lisa Turner said...

Hi Kaede,

The older bitter melons get, the more bitter they become. Look for bright green bitter melons, use as soon as possible, and once the seeds turn red they may be too bitter for your taste. Cooks may also want to reduce the amount of bitter melons in a recipe until you're more accustomed to the taste. I hope you have more pleasant experiences with the vegetable in the future.

The Americaine said...

I don't know about the taste but the fruit is beautiful!