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The bitter gourd dances across the sharp blade of a mandolin, uniform slices falling from the vegetable and landing silently on the cutting board below. Its gator-like green skin flashes brightly against the utensil’s yellow plastic. With every stroke, the vegetable gets smaller and smaller, until I hold just the stubby stem in my hand. 

Karela — or bitter gourd in English — is a controversial vegetable. Most people don’t like its sour taste or ragged exterior. But my siblings and I love it. So did my grandfather. It smells like clean water and eating it makes my mouth pucker, but in a good way. After frying in hot oil for half an hour, the slices shrivel like spinach and become crispy on the outside but stay soft on the inside. 

I love karela, but I hate the seeds. They are more bitter than the vegetable itself and are practically pebble-like when cooked. Before I finish cutting one full vegetable – each is about the length of my hand — I weed out all the hard seeds from the spongy white interior with my fingers. They fall in a corner of the cutting board, pale and dejected. My mother loves those seeds and their satisfying crunch. 

My mother is on the patio, pacing back and forth as she talks to her own mother on the phone. She is asking for a lemon rice recipe. They are talking in a language that I can understand but cannot speak. If I try to speak it, my tongue becomes thick and heavy and suddenly my mouth does not know how to move properly. Spanish words somehow tumble out instead, but my ancestors never spoke Spanish. They spoke Persian and Urdu and Farsi and Hindi and Telugu and English and their knowledge is buried in a grave thousands of miles away.

Cooking is the only connection that I have with what my family left behind. The flavors of home were passed down to my parents who try their best to recreate them with duller American substitutes. The food doesn’t taste the same, but it still nourishes and comforts. Just seeing the karela in the fridge is enough to bring joy, filling me with the knowledge that it will soon be cooked and crispy on the kitchen table. It’s comforting to know that I have something tangible from them – a recipe that I can enjoy and pass down. Knowledge that won’t be buried. 

After cutting the sixth karela, my arm starts to ache. I imagine my deceased grandfather using a knife to painstakingly slice the karela into the thin pieces he liked. He was the one who taught my mother — his daughter-in-law — to love this vegetable. I wonder if he used to like the seeds. I only knew him for the first eight years of my life, and never really thought to ask. We didn’t speak the same language. 

When my mother comes back inside, she fills the pan with coconut oil and waits for it to get hot. She adds turmeric and cayenne pepper while I watch from a safe distance. She adds the karela to the pan before she covers it, leaving it to cook. Every five minutes, I mix the vegetable around lazily with a wooden spoon, ensuring that it doesn’t burn. 

The edges of the green karela start to crisp up and turn brown as they cook and the aroma is permeating the house, latching onto my clothes and hair. I imagine my grandfather taking a deep breath to enjoy the smell. I do the same. 

I pick up a slice from the pan and taste it to see if the spices are properly balanced. The karela is soft towards the center and crunchy on the edges, its spice hitting my tongue before the lingering bitterness drives it away. It’s perfect.

MiC Columnist Safura Syed can be reached at safura@umich.edu