The searing pleasure of roasted eggplant
- A roasted eggplant is the starting point of many great dishes
- Roasting an eggplant makes it an allergy-free eating experience
What do roasted eggplant and sautéed onions have in common?
Both make excellent starting points for many a great dish.
Eggplant, or brinjal as it is usually called in India, may not find itself on many popularity lists. But given its varieties and versatility, spanning cuisines and courses, it is indeed a strong contender in the veggie world.
In my grandparents’ home, this vegetable would be a standard fixture in sambhar, made into a stir-fry, or in combination with potatoes in a very thin sauce to be had with rotis. I disliked all of these with equal gusto. It was one of the few vegetables I could not bring myself to eat, and, to make things worse, it would also give me a bad itch in the throat.
Dislikes were not taken seriously but allergies were. Given that I was otherwise not a fussy eater, my grandmother would indulge me by giving me a free pass to skip any eggplant-based dish.
Turns out, it is not uncommon to experience an itchy mouth and throat after eating eggplant. This could be attributed to the fact that the vegetable has a high concentration of histamine and serotonin. I realized later that roasting an eggplant makes it an allergy-free eating experience—I am assuming the effect of exposure to direct heat for the time it takes to roast the entire eggplant deactivates some of the alkaloids.
I was in my 20s when I fell in love with the very adult smoky flavours of a roasted eggplant, something I cannot fathom children loving. The Punjabi-style baingan bharta with all the regular stand-ins, such as ginger, garlic, onion, tomatoes and ground spices, turned into one of my favourite dishes. A simple meal of parathas with bharta always made it feel like a meal had sitting on a charpoy at a noisy dhaba somewhere on a highway in Punjab.
Later, I was introduced to sutta kathrikkai pachadi, either at a relative’s place or possibly through Samaithu Paar (the iconic set of cookbooks written by S. Meenakshi Ammal). Mashed roasted eggplant, whisked into yogurt, with a generous tempering of green chillies and mustard seeds. This one, while seeming like a raita, has enough flavour and substance to be given the upgraded status of a proper side dish. Another epic Tamil dish (and I do not use this word lightly) that starts off with roasted eggplants is the gothsu. Roasted eggplant mashed and simmered in a spiced tamarind sauce and venn pongal (savoury pongal) are a match made in culinary heaven.
Fellow food bloggers sharing their regional cooking and recipes led me to the magnificence of a khandeshi bharit from Maharashtra. Roasted eggplant, garlic, green chillies, spring onions and fried peanuts with the unmistakable aroma of groundnut oil, all mixed up and served with a jowar bhakri is simple Indian fare at its finest.
Begun pora love happened to me much later in life—unctuous, with a glug of mustard oil poured by a hand that doesn’t count calories, an unapologetic oomph from onions, garlic, green chillies (all raw) and coriander, is as heady and intense as things can get in the roasted eggplant department. This maximum-flavour, minimum-effort dish is what I make for Sunday dinner, every single week.
SUTTA KATHRIKKAI GOTHSU
1 large eggplant (bharta variety)
A piece of tamarind, around 20g
1 cup hot water
1 tbsp oil
A pinch of asafoetida
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp chana dal
2-3 dried red chillies
2 sprigs curry leaves
1 tbsp sambhar masala
1 tsp rice flour (optional)
1 tsp salt
Roast the eggplant on an open flame, turning it occasionally until the skin is charred all over and the flesh is soft and yielding to a knife poked into it. Once cool enough to handle, peel the skin and slice off the stem end.*
Mash the flesh and keep aside. Soak tamarind in hot water for 15 minutes. Squeeze out the tamarind pulp, pass through a sieve and reserve the extract.
In a pan, heat oil and stir in asafoetida. Fry mustard seeds, chana dal, red chillies and curry leaves until the seeds splutter and the dal turns golden brown.
To this, add the tamarind pulp, sambhar masala and salt. Let this simmer over a low flame for 4-5 minutes. Stir in the mashed eggplant and simmer for 2-3 minutes.
If you want a thicker sauce, make a slurry of rice flour in 1 tbsp water and add it to the pan. Allow the mixture to come to a boil. Remove into a bowl and serve with rice or pongal.
1 large eggplant (bharta variety)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2-3 green chillies, thinly sliced
1 medium tomato, finely chopped
2-3 tbsp coriander, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tsp salt
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp mustard oil (or more)
*Follow the first two steps as for the gothsu.
Mash the flesh along with onion, chillies, tomato, coriander, garlic, lemon juice and salt to release flavours from all the ingredients. Allow the eggplant to retain some texture by not mashing it into a soft purée.
Mix in the mustard oil at the final stage. I like to let this marinate for an hour or so before serving.
Serve with rotis or with dal and rice.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.