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.
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!
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.