The first time I saw thumba karavila was when I was a child. “Amma what are these?” an excited me asked my mother who had just returned from the Farmers’ Market on Sunday. “Wait till I cook those for you” she said.

Thumba Karavila, those furry little things

Thumba Karavila, those furry little things

And cook for me she did. And I’ve been addicted to these pimply bulbs of deliciousness ever since.

Thumba Karavila is known by many names in the world – Forest bitter gourd, Bristly Balsam Pear, Kantola, prickly carolaho, Teasle gourd, spiny gourd or Momordica dioica to name a few. This vegetable is popular in both India and Sri Lanka and is prepared with spices and sometimes eaten with meat or fish. While the health benefits of thumba is not readily available, our mothers believe that it has more or less the same benefits of bitter gourd without the bitterness.

This is how ripened and semi-ripened thumba look when sliced in half

This is how ripened and semi-ripened thumba look when sliced in half

It’s a good thing that she did not tell me the name of the vegetable because at the very mention of the word “karavila”, the Sinhala name for bitter gourd, I may have developed an aversion to the dish. But I assure you, this is nothing like the much-hated but healthy as ever karavila. However, if not prepared properly, it tends to get a little iffy. This is why learning how to make this curry properly is very important.




Rich, fragrant and absolutely succulent. The curry itself is buoyant and flavorsome with the dried fish giving it a salty-fried kick. The pieces of thumba are soft and toothsome –gentle in flavour,  infused with the fragrant spices seeped in coconut oil, these little pieces of heaven act as absorbent sponges splurging flavour as you bite into it. This curry is a textural mix of soft and hard – the thumba seeds within the fruits snap between the teeth, merging with the soft but chewy thumba pieces and the strips of dried fish dissolving in the mouth giving the curry a punch that is simply irresistible. The mélange of spices – the cinnamon and the cardamom – meld together in a perfumed union, diffusing beautiful warmth that spreads through the senses like a sunny afternoon by the beach. I could down whole potfuls of rice with this. And my mother knows that.

Give this lovely a try and you will yelp whenever you spot thumba karavila somewhere (like I do now). Honestly, how rare is it that you find something so good for you and so delicious at the same time?


Cooking tips

  • My mother always chooses the ripened ones that lean towards reddish-orange. These are not at all bitter and lends extra flavour to the curry.
  • Wash these well. The spiny prickly parts tend to catch dirt and whatnot easily and since they are not supposed to be peeled or husked, wash them carefully to avoid any mud or sand into the curry.
  • You can substitute the Dry Fish with dried sprats as well if you like.
  • when adding salt to the curry, be wary as dried fish already is very salty and you may not even need the added salt to the curry.