Bitter Melon in Oregon
In the mid-80s, while studying cultural anthropology at Stanford University, I fell in love with a fellow graduate student and followed him to his country, Nepal. Pramod had grown up in a high-caste Brahman household in a small village in the Himalayan foothills. After he left home for studies in Kathmandu and then abroad, his extended family migrated down to fertile Chitwan Valley.
Chitwan is part of the tarai, a region of alluvial plains, low hills, and basins that belts the southern edge of the Himalayan foothills through India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. Asian rhinoceros and Bengal tigers once flourished in Chitwan’s dense stands of sal, teak, and Indian rosewood trees. With some genetic resistance to malaria, the indigenous Tharu cultivated rice in clearings, netted fish in the marshes, hunted deer and boar, and gathered greens and tubers in the forests.
In the 1950s, Nepal’s monarchy received aid from the United States to drain the marshes, dike the rivers and spray DDT. Safe from malaria, pioneers from the hills homesteaded the land. They felled trees, plowed, and planted rice, corn, and wheat. Soon, a country famous for mountains had more and more of its population living in Chitwan and other tarai districts. Mosquitoes and other wildlife died or retreated into forest remnants. The Tharus, tricked out of much of their land by wily speculators, sheltered in their remaining villages. Various hill castes and ethnic groups, including Pramod’s Brahman family, spread out around them.
By the time I made my first visit as a fiancé in 1984, roads, irrigation canals and electrical lines cut through a patchwork of flat, cultivated fields. Cob, brick and cement houses had taken the place of trees. Two years later, I returned as a wife, four months pregnant and eager to begin research on women’s lives. To gain some privacy amid extended family, Pramod and I settled into a spruced-up loft over a buffalo shed. As my belly swelled, monsoon rains flooded rice paddies, dirt roads and our compound.
Over the years of learning to be a wife, mother and anthropologist through Chitwan’s semi-tropical seasons, I discovered the comforts of local cuisine. Okra and jackfruit curries satisfied food cravings through the hot, humid monsoon days of late pregnancy. Mustard greens fried with garlic and chilies carried me through sleepless months of infant care and postpartum depression during the cold, foggy winter. But one dish seduced me like no other: karela ko achar, bitter melon chutney.
Orthodox Brahmans follow strict rules about who can prepare and serve the foods they consider most pure and sacred. While lax in some areas, Pramod’s family held firm to these rules for the sake of my aging father-in-law. I was shooed away from cooking while pregnant because women beyond the fourth month or so are not allowed to cook rice. I was limited in what I could help with after giving birth because of my non-Hindu, foreign status. But I watched and learned as my talkative sisters-in-law and mother-in-law cooked.
To make karela ko achar, you halve a few bitter melons longwise, scoop out the seeds, then slice them into narrower slivers about 2 inches in length. I suppose you could cut them into any sort of chunks. Circular rounds are pretty especially on the smaller bitter melons where you can leave the unformed seeds in, but in our family that shape always went for spicy buttermilk soup or salted bitter melon chips deep-fried in ghee. For achar, we always had the long slivers.
Slice one or more hot green chilies into slivers. Heat some oil. Ghee or mustard oil would have been most likely in our home, but any high heat oil will work. Toss a teaspoon or so of fenugreek seeds in, then the chilis. After a few seconds, add the bitter melon. Lower heat a bit, turn often and fry until the bitter melon is soft and slightly browned. Remove from heat.
While the fried bitter melon is cooling, grind up a few tablespoons of toasted sesame seeds. Roasted tahini also works if that’s what you have on hand. Put in a mixing bowl with salt and lemon juice. Fresh squeezed lemon is best, but bottled will do. Add fried bitter melon and mix.
Although I observed details of local cookery during my first year living in Nepal, I didn’t pay much attention to how the food was grown. I was busy with pregnancy, motherhood plus surveys and interviews for my dissertation research. Then Pramod and I left Nepal for several years and lived with our toddler in California, Iowa, upstate New York: finishing dissertations, teaching, and completing post-doctoral residencies. We returned to Nepal for longer stays and some new research projects when our son was four.
I now see our return as an attempt to shore up a crumbling marriage. Many imagined exotic conflicts between us, but our marriage was flawed in the mundane ways that most troubled marriages are. We didn’t know how to grow together beyond that. Back in Nepal again, this time I sought distraction from marital anxieties by joining my brother-in-law and nieces and nephews in spring vegetable gardening. As I experienced it living among recent immigrants from the hills, spring in Chitwan is a few weeks of gratitude for warmer temperatures and fog-free views of the snow-capped Himalayas followed by four months of complaints: too much heat, too much dust, too much haze blocking views of beautiful mountains again.
Before the heat became unbearable, we weeded, and cleaned out brush and litter. Then we planted beans, cucumbers, bitter melons, zucchini, watermelon, luffa gourds, tomatoes, eggplants, okra. We also made plans for shrubs and trees we’d plant just before the monsoons. Bounding out of bed each morning for another day of physical exertion, I discovered a passion for growing food.
As the hot, dry summer began, mysterious diseases and ravenous bugs weakened our plants. Then came an unseasonal cold front with golf-ball sized hail shredding leaves and breaking stems. Many of our young vegetable plants died. But we marveled at one bitter melon that withstood damage and continued growing. Covered in lacy leaves––much like those of cucumber but more deeply cut and veined––the vine clambered up tall stakes and towered six feet over the water pump. Soon, delicate yellow blossoms gave way to the first warty pips.
Surrounded by gardening failures, some of us in the family debated ideas for shoring up the success of the bitter melon. A little weeding and fertilizing could only improve it, we reasoned. My mother-in-law, Parvati, overheard our discussions.
“No, you don’t,” she said. “Never dig around bitter melons and cucumbers. The roots are too shallow.”
Everyone in the family admired Parvati’s leadership on matters such as helping neighbors and campaigning for women’s rights, but many questioned her gardening skills. We often laughed about the eggplant seedlings she planted near the biogas sludge pit. To water what was left of them, we had to hand-carry buckets along the rim of the pit. Everyone feared falling in. And then the water ran into the pit rather than to the eggplant roots.
Still, my nephews and nieces heeded their grandmother’s advice and moved on to replanting seeds and seedlings to replace what had been lost to hail and diseases. But my brother-in-law and I ignored Parvati. We rooted out weeds around the bitter melon and churned in compost. As a final flourish, we dug a deep circular trench around the base of the vine for better irrigation.
That night, exhausted muscles and a sense of accomplishment lulled me into sleep.
I rose at first light the next morning, eager as I always was in those days to see what had sprouted or put on new leaves or fruits. I was especially impatient to check on the bitter melon. It would be too soon to see the benefits, of course. But I wanted to admire our handiwork.
Approaching, I noticed some drooping leaves. Must be the dawn light or my sleepy eyes, I told myself. I pumped water into my cupped hand, splashed it on my face and looked again. No doubt about it, the leaves were wilting. I hoped it was just one branch that we had broken. But, no. Every leaf on every branch had lost its perk. Throughout the day, the dying of the bitter melon vine played out next to the water pump for all to see.
We all moved on to other plantings and harvests, growing more successful as we listened to elders. A few years later, I left Nepal, my marriage and my academic career. Through some broke and lonely years in Portland, Oregon, I wrote and taught to support single parenting and small-scale gardening. Meanwhile Parvati passed away, my son grew up, went to college and now pursues his own global adventures.
I’ve visited Nepal since and have been warmly welcomed. Among trees and shrubs I helped plant, I’m flooded by memories of early romance and the thrill of giving birth and bonding with what would be my only child. But I miss being woven into family and community the way I was before.
I followed another love to this farm in northeastern Oregon where I indulge my food-growing passion on a larger scale. Every spring, I take breaks from planting bitter melon and other vegetables and flowers to wander our acreage. In swales where indigenous Nez Perce might have harvested camas tubers, I check for the blue, star-like blossoms. Among rusty, horse-drawn harrows and discs abandoned in weedy pastures, I look for nests of chipping sparrows and house wrens.
Several times a week, I check on a succession of flowers and fruits in a hollow where a collapsing, uninhabited house still provides shelter to bats, packrats, frogs, mice and wasps. Naturalized daffodils are the first reminder to appear every spring, often poking through melting snow. They now seem as at home here as the native balsamroot and lupine blooming amid bunch grasses on the undisturbed canyon walls. Shaded by a box elder tree, red peonies hug an old stone wall. Under apple trees nearby, I’ve dug up rhubarb and lavender irises to plant close to the new house we’ve built a quarter mile away.
Below the old homestead, native hawthorns and serviceberries and feral roses overtake what used to be a large vegetable garden. A plum tree has seeded and suckered children around herself, all so shaded by other trees that the infrequent fruits are small and bitter. Poking around the thickets, I imagine the asparagus, potatoes, pumpkins, tomatoes and more that once flourished in this sun-warmed hollow every summer.
I often wonder what will become of our lofty dreams and projects here. I picture weeds and trees overgrowing my garden, gophers and deer chewing down all but the daffodils and peonies. Still, I continue to expand my orchard and perennial beds with apricots and cherries, daylilies and irises, hardy salvias and sedums. And every year, I tend tomatoes and peppers and other heat-loving annuals, including bitter melon.
By mid-July or so, the bitter melon vines usually reach three or four feet: not an impressive height in the subtropical plains of Nepal but as much as I can probably ever hope for in eastern Oregon. Careful not to break stems, I part the pungent leaves to check for the first fruits.
By late August or early September, I have enough bitter melon for a meal. My son often visits then and shares in my excitement for the first karela ko achar of the year. I usually prepare it with rice and lentils and a vegetable or meat curry. Scooping out the seeds, slicing the warty flesh and browning fenugreek seeds in ghee, I think of that dead vine looming over the water pump. It would be so easy to wallow there, as I’ve often done, and cling to other regrets too. Then I bite into that first bitter sliver coated with lemon and sesame and let my thoughts wander back to my last month of pregnancy, when I nurtured more hopes for the future than sorrows of the past.
The sky was finally clear of monsoon clouds, and the Himalayas could again be seen over the foothills. Families gathered for Nepal’s ten-day harvest festival celebrating the Goddess Durga’s victory over the demon, Mahishasura. Villagers prepared water buffaloes and goats for sacrifice. Children played on wooden ferris wheels and huge bamboo swings. Amid the festivities, I tried to calm my fears about giving birth and becoming a mother.
On the last day of Dashain, we had to make customary visits to uncles and aunts to exchange blessings. I draped my best silk sari over my swollen belly and waddled down a dirt lane alongside my husband and in-laws. The gold pendant on my beaded marriage necklace gleamed in the sun.
At the first stop, we received stainless steel plates heaped with karela ko achar and several rounds of sel roti: a thin, deep fried bread made of sweetened rice flour. We washed it all down with sugary chai. Then we walked for miles to the houses of other relatives for more bitter melon, and sel roti. My stomach ached from all the food, but I couldn’t refuse the hospitality. As the walks and visits and meals wore on, I was sure I’d grow tired of bitter melon.
Years later, I still haven’t and suspect I never will.
Elizabeth Enslin is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.