Bitter melon, karela close match to soothing properties of neem

My apologies to Randy Burnside, of Jupiter. He sent me a letter several weeks ago – a handwritten letter – to The Post, rather an email that I check daily. His letter languished at the Post’s office for awhile, and the when it finally came to me, I was lax in opening it. He had a reason to use the snail mail, though; he enclosed an article from the Orchids magazine.

Randy wrote in the accompanying note that “as a longtime orchid grower, I am familiar with neem oil and I am sure you are too.” The article was on neem oil, which it said is “one of nature’s pesticides” that can ward off a lot ailments in orchids and other living things, including humans. It is also harmless to humans, birds and beasts. Unfortunately, it is not effective against sexual predation or male bombast!

Yes Randy, I am very familiar with this native Indian tree (Azadirachta indica), and your letter brought back a flood of memories of my childhood in Bengal, on the eastern part of India, which now comprises the Indian state of West Bengal and the nation of Bangladesh, whose capital Dhaka is my birthplace.

In our old house in Dhaka, which incidentally was named “Orchid Dale” because of my father’s love of growing orchids, there was a humongous neem tree just outside the second courtyard of the sprawling house.

Like many old, traditional Indian houses, this was built around courtyards – the first one public with garages and offices, the second one semi-private, and the inner courtyard for just the family. The second and inner parts of the house were connected by long covered verandas, which provided a perfect runway for us kids’ tricycles. One of my sisters, prone to speeding, would sometimes end up in the rose bush bordering part of the veranda that was open on one side.

Alas, where the house once was now stands a multistory building. It lives, though, in my dreams, and many nights I am back there with long-gone loved ones romping through its rooms and corridors.

Back to the present! The neem oil article in an old issue of Orchids, written by Susan Jones, contained a laundry list of benefits attributed to neem in the fields of agriculture and medicine. But the one application I still remember – and can smell it if I close my eyes – is when my old and beloved nanny gave us kids a hot bath when we got sick. Leaves from the tree were boiled in a kettle of water and that brew was mixed with cool water to bathe our ailing bodies.

Apparently, live neem plants are available here online, and if you visit any of the local Indian grocery stores, you can buy several neem-related medicinal and cosmetic preparations, including salve and toothpaste. We have never used them. But the majestic neem tree is a part of my past.

Even in India, though, the slightly bitter neem leaves or berries are not considered food ingredients – at least not that I know of. We love a pleasantly bitter taste in some vegetables, however, especially in the bitter melon (Momordica charantia), known as karela in India. This elongated green veggie with a warty skin and bulging middle, is believed to have great medicinal worth, including blood-purifying properties.

It is the firm the outer flesh and skin of young karelas that are used; the fibrous core and the seeds are generally scooped away. It can be used in many ways, but our favorite is karela bhajee, a simple sauteed dish with fried onion and spices. Here is how my wife, Kaisari makes it. Karela is available in most Indian groceries, and even some local green markets.


3 to 4 young and tender karelas

1 large onion

3 tablespoons of canola oil

Half to 1 teaspoon salt

A scant half teaspoon tamarind paste

Generous pinch of sugar

Pinch of ground cayenne pepper, optional

Wash the karelas well under running water, using a soft brush. Dry them and slit them in half along the length. With a spoon, scoop out the fibrous center with the seeds and discard. Lay the karela halves on the cut side and slice thinly into half-round slices. Peel the onion, cut in half lengthwise and slice thinly.

Heat the oil in a large skillet and saute the onion slices over medium to medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until they are golden brown and somewhat crisp. Tilt the skillet to move the oil and fish out the browned onion with a slotted spoon; set aside.

In the hot oil, stir in the karela slices and the salt and saute, stirring frequently, until they are cooked through and start to crisp up. Midway you may have to add a small amount of water that should be absorbed.

Meanwhile, mix the tamarind paste and sugar, using a teaspoon or two of water. Add the mixture to the karela along with the reserved browned onion and the cayenne, if using. Cook and stir over medium heat, stirring, so that everything comes together. Add a spoon of water if needed. The karela slices should be cooked through, but feel a bit crisp to the bite.

Serve with cooked basmati rice and lemon slices as a first course at lunch.

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