Stuffed Bitter Gourd

Everyone in Southeast Asia loves bitter gourd, or bitter cucumber, balsam pear, karela, ampalaya... – it has many names. Botanically, it is Momordica charantia. I am going to call it by its common Indonesian name, paria, because it’s nice and short.

Paria whole jpeg.jpgIn Indonesia, we are convinced that paria, because it is bitter, must also be good for us. I’m diabetic, and I have even been told that paria, though it won’t cure diabetes, can help diabetes sufferers. I eat paria because I like it, but I must admit I’m still waiting to see if it will have any effect on my blood sugar. However, this may be because I can’t resist stuffing my paria with all kinds of delicious things – chicken, creamy coconut milk, and other delights.

In fact, paria is a very healthy vegetable, with plenty of minerals and fibre and some useful vitamins. And the bitterness is good; a bit of an acquired taste, perhaps, but once you acquire it, you’re hooked. That is when you discover paria’s real problem, in this country (I mean the UK) at any rate: it is quite expensive. But it shouldn’t be too difficult to find, if you have a Thai or other oriental food shop within striking distance.

You can use your favourite savoury stuffing with paria – I’m particularly fond of the chicken-and-coconut filling described here, which in Java we use to fill lemper, delicious rolled-up sticky rice, as finger food.

The paria:
The quantity of stuffing shown will be enough to fill one good-sized paria, about 40 cm / 16 inches long.

CIMG0401.JPGCut the paria across into several rounds, about 3 cm / 1″-1½″ thick (see picture). With a small knife, scrape out the seeds and the membranes. Put the rings into a colander, sprinkle them liberally with sea salt, and leave to stand for between 2 and 6 hours. Then wash off the salt under the cold tap, rinse each ring (and the colander) in a bowl of cold water, and leave the rings in the colander to drain.

The next step is to boil about half a litre / a pint of water in a largish saucepan. When it boils, put in the paria pieces, with half a teaspoonful of salt. Lower the heat and let the paria bubble gently, covered or uncovered, for 3 or 4 minutes. Then drain the pieces again in the colander.

The stuffing:
2 chicken breasts
4 shallots, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 candlenuts or macadamia nuts or blanched almonds
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp brown sugar
1 kaffir lime leaf (optional)
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp ground white pepper
2 Tbsp peanut oil or olive oil
140 ml / 5 fl oz thick coconut milk

Boil the chicken breasts in water with a large pinch of salt for about 40 minutes. Take them out, and let them cool on a plate. When they are cool, shred them finely.

Blend the rest of the ingredients for the stuffing with half of the coconut milk until smooth. Put the liquid into a small saucepan, bring it to the boil, and simmer for 8 minutes. Add the shredded chicken meat and the rest of the coconut milk and continue simmering until all the coconut milk has been absorbed by the meat but the mixture is still moist. Adjust the seasoning, and leave to cool.

Assembling and cooking the finished dish:
Arrange these prepared pieces on an ovenproof dish, spoon the stuffing into them, and cook in a preheated oven at 180°C / 350°F / Gas 4 for 25-30 minutes. Alternatively, the stuffed paria can be steamed for about 10 minutes.

Serve hot, warm or cold, as a side dish to be eaten with rice.