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A gochujang-glazed eggplant, from Singapore to Nandgaon

Very little matters at a reunion after a quarter century—except friendship and food

Eggplant with Asian sauces. (Istockphoto)

By Samar Halarnkar

LAST PUBLISHED 20.04.2024  |  09:00 AM IST

My wife has not forgotten our honeymoon in Goa a quarter century ago. In a rash of bravado, she agreed to coalesce it with a reunion of my oldest friends from college: seven of us, plus spouses or girl/boyfriends and five children under four. As you might imagine, there was carousing, crying and chaos not suited for a romantic getaway.

While her brow still furrows at the memory, those friends are now hers as well, and many are back in Bengaluru, where we went to college, barely completing a degree in commerce, our time occupied by minimal education, hazardous substances, and other dubious but creative pursuits that prepared us well for life.

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This year we decided to re-convene after 25 years. After cancelled flights and last-minute confusion, everyone made it: two flying in from Australia, one from Singapore, one driving down from New Delhi, one nursing a micro-fracture in the back, one persuaded to abandon a fancy safari in Nagpur and re-route to Nandgaon in coastal Maharashtra, our meeting point.

It was here, in a house on a hill that belonged to one of the Byaand—as we have always called ourselves—that we reunited. Older, creakier and not very much wiser. Our host, my cousin who married one of us, is a more generous and organised woman than anyone I know. When we got there, two fridges and two cupboards were stocked with enough snacks, food and drink for an army, which our rapaciousness matched. She had even organised gluten-free rice bhakris and pasta.

As the arrivals crossed 20, mattresses took over the floors, waits for the bathroom lengthened, loos ran out of water—here in the backcountry, there was only stored rainwater from the last monsoon—but it didn’t matter. Nothing did, except the fact that we were together again.

Children, some of them over 25, some preteens, bonded across generations and ran amok, largely unsupervised. Very bad jokes were told in rowdy Banglish, too much liquor was drunk, too many old stories were told, retold, and then retold again. Blood sugar and cholesterol levels were temporarily ignored.

We walked on a nearly deserted beach, accompanied by spectacular, ochre sunrises and sunsets, and swam in the calmest bay ever—more like a giant swimming pool in the Arabian Sea. One of us had printed T-shirts with our old motto, “C’mon the Byaand", which is also the name of the WhatsApp group that keeps us in touch. After we left, we discovered our children had created an Insta group. It was called “Bachchas of the Byaand".

 

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Walking into the sunset. (Photo by Jeanine Kumar)

While everyone was willing to kindly adjust, food was not one of those areas. We ate top-quality food because my cousin ignored my advice to take each day as it came and planned every meal. Most lunches were exquisitely cooked by women she had hired from the village, but breakfasts were left to us, as were most dinners. We ate only one dinner out, combining a visit to the sea fort of Janjira with fish thalis and missal paos by the vast beach in Murud.

Now, I make breakfast most days at home, and I am used to routinely cooking for 15-20 people, but it took some discipline for an old comrade and me to produce bhurji, shakshouka and omelettes with 25-odd eggs daily—after drinking, rising early, and swimming in the bay or running on the beach. We chopped mounds of onion and tomato, and one of the women dealt with the vegetarian entrées, poha mostly.

But the culinary highlight of the trip came from the youngest of us, who we ribbed in college—and still do—about his 1980s’ penchant for polished shoes and alarm clocks. He evolved over the years into a banker and a chef of a calibre higher than us pretenders.

One night, he put together a high-quality five-entrée Chinese dinner. Instead of boot polish and that alarm clock, his suitcase was stuffed with ingredients from Singapore—oyster mushrooms, red-wine vinegar, gochujang (a red-chilli paste), chilli oil, sticky rice, pomelo (idhar bhi milta hai, one of the village women said), soy sauce and even vegetable stock. The highlight for me was the gochujang eggplant (recipe below).

As night fell, and stars broke out in the balmy Konkan sky, his fine effort would add to our collective memories.

ROHIT JAISINGH’S GOCHUJANG EGGPLANT

Serves 6

Ingredients

4 purple eggplants, about 8 inches long

3 tbsp oil

1 bunch spring onions: green sections cut into 3-inch lengths; white sections cut into discs

Salt to taste

For the sauce

1 tsp garlic paste

1 tsp ginger paste

Three-fourth cup of sriracha/gochujang/any other hot sauce of your choice (if using a very spicy sauce, add honey)

4 tbsp, light soya sauce

4 tbsp, brown sugar or honey

4 tbsp, red-wine vinegar

Method

Wash the eggplants and cut into 3-inch long fingers, toss with salt. Let stand in a colander for 60 minutes, so excess water drains. In a pan, shallow fry spring onions in 2 tbsp of oil until crispy and golden brown. Remove from pan. ⁠In the same pan, roast eggplant fingers in 1 tablespoon of oil, turning them over to expose different sides to the heat until they acquire golden brown streaks.

Whisk the sauce ingredients together. Do a taste test to adjust spice level. In the same pan, heat the sauce on slow flame to near-boiling. Add the roasted eggplant and stir until well-coated with the sauce. Serve in a platter with spring onion garnish. Goes well with sticky rice.

A five-course Chinese meal with ingredients flown in from Singapore was the highlight of the reunion.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He posts @samar11 on Twitter.

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