Meatless Monday: Punjabi eggplant curry

A roasted eggplant with a fragrantly spiced sauce.

By , We Are Never Full

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    Roasting the eggplant for this traditional Indian dish gives it a startling smoky flavor.
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One of the great joys of parenting is being able to do stuff with your kids, you know, like playing with them and watching them laugh. One of the great responsibilities of parenting is doing things with them because you have no choice, as this morning when I reached a stalemate with our 11-month old: either he needed to stop being so clingy for a few moments or I wouldn’t be able to get off the toilet. Depending on what kind of parent you are, you’ll find that one of these scenarios is more common than the other, and we’re totally not judging.

The same might be said of eating homegrown produce: some of it you thoroughly enjoy eating; some of it you eat because you have to. Our first real summer as more or less fully-fledged gardeners has certainly not been characterized by optimal growing conditions but we’re still finding that while there are joyous occasions when being creative with our horticultural bounty is a true pleasure, there are plenty of others when facing eggplant for the fourth time in a week becomes a chore.

Like parenting challenges surmounted, finding new and delicious ways to enjoy eggplant – of which, in truth, I’ve never been the world’s biggest fan – provides a great deal of personal satisfaction even if at the time it’s frustrating, because in both cases you emerge mostly unscathed but with a new-found appreciation of both the baby and the ingredient.

Recommended: Stir it Up!

The recipe below – baigan bhartha – makes use of eggplant’s previously unappreciated attribute of being able to bind a sauce. Like its nightshade cousin the tomato, eggplant seems as comfortable in this role as any other we’ve tried with it. The smoky flavor gained through roasting is quite startling in its profundity – and it would be remiss of us if we were not to warn you that roasting eggplant over direct flame, like some aspects of parenting very young children, can lead to messy explosions. But we learned that the long-cooking and removal of skin diffuses that slightly cough-inducing, throat-irritating quality we’ve always noticed, replacing it with something approaching a sweetness, believe it or not.

First eaten at our neighborhood Indian restaurant, Kinara, this roasted eggplant and fragrantly-spiced sauce is typical of the Punjab. Best known these days among Westerners for the inimitable musical stylings of Punjabi MC, the Punjab is a region of densely-populated river valleys now shared between India and Pakistan but with a historical relationship with the Persian (Farsi)-speaking, Islamic peoples of to the north and east in Afghanistan and Iran. In fact, Punjab (Panjab in Farsi) means “five rivers”, and it is in this relationship to the baba ghanoush-eating natives and co-religionists of the Middle East that the dish’s roots lie.

Future preparations to try before either the season ends or we turn into eggplants ourselves include, of course, babaghanoush, but also other recipes from both near and far: preserved/pickled eggplant, pasta alla norma, moussaka and miso eggplant.

**Recipe note: If your spices are relatively old and not as pungent, try adding more of them to this recipe. I found that the eggplant really just sucks up anything that is added to it and I ended up adding a few more pinches of all of them. Taste along the way and, as always with cooking, adjust seasoning to your liking.

Baigan Bharta of Punjabi Spiced Eggplant Curry
Serves 2-4

2 large eggplants or 3 medium ones
2 large onions, finely sliced
2 tablespoons ginger/garlic paste (or mash in mortar/pestle one 2 inch piece of peeled/chopped ginger and 2 cloves of garlic) or follow this link
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 chiles (for spice) or 1 teaspoon ground hot red pepper
2 very ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon tumeric
3/4 cup of peas
some chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 lemon

The first and, to me, most unique thing about this dish is its smokey flavor. In order to achieve this, you really must roast the eggplants over an open flame. I did not have a grill, so I chose to use the flame of my gas burner – it worked like a charm. If you do not have a grill with an open flame or gas burners, then try roasting the eggplants in the oven. If roasting on an open-flame, you can wrap the whole eggplant in foil or just put it whole on the burner to roast, allowing the skin to char from the flame (about 4 to 6 minutes per side). Using tongs, keep rotating till eggplant is charred on all sides and has collapsed like a deflated balloon. BE CAREFUL because it is filled with molten-hot deliciousness. Allow to rest on a plate for a bit to cool before you try and scoop the flesh out. When it is cooled, use a spoon to remove softened flesh or try and peel away charred skin. Keep flesh in a bowl until later.

Heat pan and add cumin seeds – allow cumin seeds to dry roast for 20 seconds, swirling the pan to make sure they evenly roast. Add some oil and throw in all the onions. Turn the heat down to medium-low and allow to slowly cook down. The slow-cooked onions really bring flavor to the dish (a sweetness). This could take 20 minutes, but give it the time it needs – I am convinced the dish would’ve been different if the onions didn’t slowly cook down. You can add a tiny bit of water or some more oil if you think the pan is getting too dry.

Add the ginger/garlic paste and allow to cook for a minute. Stir it into the onions.

Add the chiles (if using) and allow to cook for a minute or two

Add the chopped tomato and stir. Cook for 30 seconds.

Add all the spices and stir.

Now add the mashed eggplant and stir everything together. Allow this to cook with everything for about 10 minutes. Stir every 45 seconds or so so it evenly cooks (almost folding it as you stir).

Add the peas in the last 2 or 3 minutes of cooking. Check for seasonings and add salt to your liking.

Squeeze a bit of lemon into the final product and stir. Sprinkle with freshly chopped cilantro and serve with some naan and/or basmati.

Related post: Cheese and Peas Curry

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