You say Baingan Ka Bharta, I say Bengan Bharta

by Amy Kim on September 26, 2010 · 55 comments

It was that time again. I slumped at the counter of our galley kitchen in our tiny apartment. I had just gotten home from work and just cringed at the thought of cooking again. My husband and I were new to San Francisco and familiarizing ourselves with ALL the take-out places near our neighborhood since very few places delivered (this still puzzles me). The first time I had bengan bharta was at Pakwan in San Francisco. It was a dark divey little joint in the Mission that really wasn’t known for much, but I was CRAVING Indian food. I needed something hearty, spicy, flavorful – STAT. I scanned the menu online. I never had bengan bharta before nor had I heard of it before, and the description on the menu “eggplant cooked with onions and tomatoes” was the least bit enticing. But they had me at “eggplant” and it was done.

The clumpy brown stew with a thin layer of oil didn’t look like much in the translucent plastic tub. But I didn’t expect much. It was take-out. I plopped a good helping of the stew on top of the pile of orange flecked basmati rice. I was too hungry to care about the spoonful of rice that flew off my plate. The nutty, savory, spicy dish was hearty and fulfilling.  It took every ounce of self-restraint to not devour the whole tub of stew.

*educational interlude (cue sarode music)*

Baingan bharta has many names (in Hindi, it’s baingan ka bharta) and each region has its own recipe. It’s also eaten across Pakistan and Bangladesh. This dish can be prepared two ways with roasted eggplant – one with accompanying raw ingredients which typically includes mustard oil and the other with cooked ingredients as documented in this post.

*back to our scheduled programming*

I am now 3000 miles away from the Mission and Pakwan and in the ‘burbs. I think you know where this is going. Good Indian food is at least a 30 minute drive away. The other day I was CRAVING bengan bharta.

CRAY. VING.

Before I go on, let me just say that I am a self-appointed expert at eating Indian cuisine. I will try any hole-in-the-wall to fancified dosa joints to all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. I was never interested in making Indian food mostly because good Indian food was always accessible.  And what do I know about cardamom pods and fenugreek seeds? I’ll leave to those who know how to use it correctly! Excuses, excuses – I was just plain lazy.

Using the Pakwan dish as my control and the roasted eggplant and onion as my constants, I experimented with three different recipes that I found on the internet. My first attempt turned out too sweet and bland and was nowhere near what I was looking for. Too much tomato and too many peas. The garam masala, salt, and cayenne pepper were the only spices that were used and did not come through at all in the dish. Failure numero uno.

My second recipe looked like it would be much more savory and flavorful. It included garlic, green chilies, and ginger, but no tomatoes. It also involved pureeing the roasted eggplant, raw garlic and ginger. This recipe definitely produced a much more savory and spicier dish with whole lot of bite, but I found that the raw garlic was way too bitter and overpowered the dish. Also, the puree produced a more hummus-like consistency which is fine for a dip, but I was looking for something with a little more heft. Failure numero dos.

My third attempt was a combination of 3 to 4 recipes from various blogs. Instead of raw garlic, I roasted it alongside the eggplant. I also reduced the amount of tomato and omitted the peas. This last attempt embodied an amalgam of flavors that I was looking for – smoky, spicy, nutty, savory, all with a touch of sweetness. I was finally starting to understand how to treat these spices – how the simple act of cooking them released  a complexity of awesome flavors. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’m just getting this now!

Bengan Bharta

2 small eggplants + couple teaspoons of olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, peeled + olive oil and pinch of salt

A couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil for cooking
1-2 small green chilies, finely chopped
1×1-inch piece of ginger, minced
1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon ground tumeric

1 large tomato, cored and seeded OR 3/4 cup of canned diced tomatoes, drained (I like the Muir Glen roasted diced tomatoes)
1 teaspoon salt
cilantro (aka coriander), roughly chopped

I recommend roasting the eggplant and garlic on a grill. I fashioned a little cup made with aluminum foil for the garlic. I added a couple of teaspoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Please note that the garlic will cook more quickly than the eggplant. Once the garlic is a golden brown, you can take it off the heat while the eggplant continues cooking.

If you don’t have access to a grill, you can roast the eggplant and garlic in the oven. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Apply a thin coat of olive oil on the eggplant and roast for about 45 to 60 minutes or until skin is charred and shriveled. Garlic will be done in almost half the time. Let cool and peel. Mash the eggplant and garlic with a masher. Set aside.

Heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in a medium size skillet over medium high heat. Add green chilies, ginger, and cumin seeds and cook until fragrant. About 30 seconds.

Add the onions and cook until translulcent. Add chili powder and tumeric and stir until the onions are coated and the mixture become fragrant. About 30 seconds.

Add the tomatoes and salt and cook until the tomatoes begin to get mushy.

Add the eggplant, reduce heat to medium low and cook for about 10 minutes. Stir periodically.

Top with cilantro and serve warm with rice, roti, or naan. If you have any leftovers, it tastes even better the following day!

Note: This post is my entry for Challenge #2 of Project Food Blog, hosted by Foodbuzz.  The challenge, entitled “The Classics”, required us to “tackle a classic dish from another culture.” If you liked this post and feel compelled to vote for me to advance to the next challenge, register (if you haven’t already) and vote on Foodbuzz. Only 200 of the 400 contestants will advance toward the $10k prize. Voting opens on Monday, September 27th and closes on September 30th.

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  • Kimberly Baxter

    Amy…nice job. I can hear your voice through out the piece, the photos are very well done, and well, I’m contemplating making bengan bharta instead of meatloaf tonight. Enough said.

    • Amy

      Thanks Kim! Definitely give bengan bharta a try and get ready for an explosion of flavors. I could eat this alone as a meal!

  • http://inthekitchenwithkath.com Kath

    I have just recently started trying to recreate Indian classics at home. Your Bengan Bharta looks like a winner!

    • Amy

      Hi Kath – it was definitely fun experimenting with recipes to arrive at this final one. I am excited to attempt more Indian classics at home! Thanks for dropping by!

  • http://islandvittles.com Island Vittles

    I love the creaminess of roasted eggplant — I’ve never had Bengan Bharta, but it sounds delicious! Theresa

    • Amy

      Yes, I agree! Roasting the eggplant transforms the vegetable into creamy goodness. I recommend trying this dish!

  • Jkwon

    Awesome story and great photos! You really put yourself to the challenge by doing Indian food. You should advance just based on that. Next time we come over I’m expecting a Thanksgiving dinner with japchae, chicken tikka masala, and sweet potato pie.
    *cue in your music again.* Now I’m dancing with excitement for that meal *turning light bulbs, turning light bulbs.(as my friend showed me once)*

    • Amy

      Yes, it will be a Bollywood adventure! I definitely want to try to make more Indian dishes!

  • http://www.caseyangelova.com Casey Angelova

    Yum! This looks heavenly. I can’t get enough of eggplant. Great dish! Good luck with PFB!!!

    • Amy

      I love love love eggplant also! Thanks for dropping by!

  • http://www.thecolorsofindiancooking.com Kathy Gori

    Great job. The eggplant looks delish! Good luck!

    • Amy

      Thanks Kathy – coming from you, this is a great compliment! best of luck to you too!

  • http://www.youfedababychili.com Ben

    This looks so much better than the Punjab eggplant from Trader Joe’s I had the other day. I like how you did all the work for me in troubleshooting this recipe. Nice work!

    • Amy

      Thanks Ben! It’s still a work in progress, but am happy with the results!

  • http://www.lawyerloveslunch.com Lawyer Loves Lunch

    Wait, you used to live in SF as well? The hubster and I moved away from the Bay Area two years ago and we still miss it every day! :) We love Pakwan. The Hayward location has a Sunday brunch that is to. die. for. And props to you- I’m South Asian and I don’t even make baingan :) You have my vote for so many reasons :)

    • Amy

      Thanks! We miss Pakwan also! And the Ferry Terminal, and the farmer’s markets, and so much more!

  • bj

    yum – anything eggplant gets my vote and is worth trying. The story was great and I am up for trying it at home. Most of my attempts at indian food have been met with failure, never as good as the takeout place. But, you’ve inspired me, so I’ll keep trying :)

    • Amy

      My next attempt will be made with ghee (clarified butter) and I’m betting that that will even make it better! (And did you notice my lame science lab references? See, I did learn something in 7.011!)

  • http://www.junblog.com Jun Belen

    I have always wanted to try Pakwan — I have a seemingly endless list of hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants to try in the city, oh I hate to rub that in :-) and Pakwan is one of them. I’d have to check it out. Your bengan bharta looks delicious. Great post, Amy! And thank you for your nice note in my blog! Happy Monday!

    • Amy

      Thanks Jun!

      Also add Udupi Palace to your list. The one in Berkeley seemed a little better than the one in the Mission, but both great if you’re looking for South Indian food. Much better dosas than that other place on Valencia IMHO!

  • kim2480

    Not really a fan of cilantro, m’kay. So like, I don’t know if I’m going to vote on this one.
    Ha ha. But seriously, I kid. Nice blog entry.

    • Amy

      Thanks! Wow, I’m impressed that only the cilantro turned you off! :-)

  • cecilia

    I remember we tasted an Indian food you took out to slake
    our hunger while we visited you in Sanfrancisco we realy enjoyed
    it without knowing the name of the food.
    I can practise your recipe for bengan bharta .
    which looks very healthy and delicious .
    We see that you are cruising along the global cuisines.
    Definitely I vote for you
    I love you Amy good luck!!

    • Amy

      Thanks! :-)

  • Chihana

    Yum! When do you have time to experiment with recipes girl!? This recipe sounds great. You write just like you sound and enjoy reading these posts. I wish we could eat together again… Good for you for venturing in to Indian food. Good luck!!

    • Amy

      Thanks for reading Chihana! Well, a lot of the dishes that I experiment with do not take up that much time! Yes, one day we shall see each other and we’ll pig out!! We both live in great foodie cities! (well, I live very close to one….)

  • http://togetherinfood.wordpress.com Together-In-Food

    Love the way you told this. Your recipe looks great. I use garam masala in addition to the spices you use and cayenne pepper instead of chilis, then squeeze fresh lemon juice over it right before serving (the lemon really perks up the spices).

    • Amy

      Thanks! I have tried making it with cayenne pepper in place of chilies. I think either one works for the heat component. But I’ll definitely have to try it with lemon next time!

  • http://www.thedazzlingkitchen.blogspot.com Tamanna

    yummm begun bharta! thats what we call it in bangladesh. this looks like a warm dish i can try with my rice now. great job! voted!

    • Amy

      Thanks! I am looking forward to making this dish again!

  • Amanda (The Culinary Passport)

    Great post! I can’t wait to try this dish.

    • Amy

      Thank you! It’s a very easy dish to make that is packed with a lot of flavor.

  • http://www.riceandwheat.com riceandwheat

    Love this, Amy, so get ready to receive a vote! I love your story about Pakwan and mad props for going all “Cook’s Illustrated” on us by testing out multiple recipes. I’ve made other Indian food before but never bengan bharta even though I love eggplant – you might just have motivated me to try making this at home!

    • Amy

      Thanks so much. And I love Cook’s Illustrated, so thanks for that compliment! I am ready to try more Indian dishes!

  • http://lemonsandanchovies.wordpress.com/ Jean

    I’m like you– I seem to hone in on eggplant dishes when looking at menus. I’m motivated by your determination to get this dish right by attempting it a few times. I’ve not been too successful with my Indian dishes (as much as I love to eat it) but I’ve been wanting to give it another try. Just looking at your ingreds again and I know I’ve got everything at home to make this. Yay! Well done!

    • Amy

      I naively thought I could nail this with one recipe! I am just starting to understanding the characteristics of each spice and how they work together! This has been a fun challenge!

  • http://www.asankhana.blogspot.com notyet100

    yummy perfect with parathas,..

    • Amy

      I will have to try that next time. And it looks like your site is chock full of good recipes! Thanks for visiting!

  • Shizue Seo

    Dear Amy,
    That is our favorite dish at Pakwan. Andrew doesn’t eat eggplant except this dish. I have all the ingredients including home grown tomato except eggplant. This dish is the dinner for tonight! Off to the farmarks market this afternoon for a couple of eggplant. I have been cooking a lot ever since I become unemployed architect/ SAHM.
    Good luck !

    • Amy

      Thanks Shizeo! Yes, ever since I became a SAHM, I’ve had a little more time to cook, but that doesn’t mean that it’s totally chaotic at home which I’m sure you can relate to!

      Have fun making the dish tonight. Let me know how it turns out!

  • http://www.lickmyspoon.com @lickmyspoon

    I love the scientific approach to this recipe, and it’s great to see a Mission-inspired dish. I can’t think of a better place for cheap eats in the country. You’ve got our vote, can’t wait to see what you’ve got for us in week three.

    Lick My Spoon

    • Amy

      Thanks! It’s the nerd in me! And yes, SF has the best cheap eats. I miss it! I hope to make it to the next round!

  • http://www.cookthatbook.com Stay-At-Home-Chef

    Great post! I especially liked your educational interlude…very clever ;)

    • Amy

      Thanks. It seems like such a cop-out now after reading everyone else’s entries! But it gave me a chance to link to my friend’s website – a classical sarode musician.

  • http://runs-with-spatulas.blogspot.com Danielle@Runs With Spatulas

    Props for making this three times to get it right! Good luck in round 2!

    • Amy

      Thanks! It was a challenge finding the right flavors. And every recipe was so different from the next. Nevertheless, I had fun experimenting.

  • http://www.duchessinbrooklyn.blogspot.com Duchess

    Haha! Great minds huh? We almost made the same dish lol!

    • Amy

      I know!! I’ll have to throw in some aloo next time!

  • http://www.thedailyspud.com Daily Spud

    Well done on persevering through your failures – the pursuit of good bengan-whatchmacallit is a worthy one. And worthy of a vote too, I should think!

    • Amy

      Ha! Thanks Spud! Fingers and toes crossed to advance to next round!

  • Food o’ del Mundo

    You really went to a LOT of work here! You have my vote, hope we both advance to the next round!

    • Amy

      Thank you! My fingers are crossed!

  • http://weekendfoodprojects.com Ed

    Great job and you have my vote.

    • Amy

      Thank you!

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