Friday, July 20, 2012

Baigan Bharta

My stalwart editor (here) recently left the country for an extended period of time. My only hope of securing her insightful comments and careful edits during her six-month British boondoggle is to tempt her into service by posting a few of her favorite dishes. She practices a non-dogmatic form of quasi-vegetarianism (i.e., she occasionally becomes a pescetarian so as not to inconvenience her tablemates. And who can forget The Celebrated Christmas Holiday Organic Chicken Stock Accord of 2011).  But simply said: She fancies vegetables. One of her most requested vegetarian dishes is Baigan Bharta or Baked Eggplant Purée with Seasoned Yogurt from Lord Krishna’s Cuisine – The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Yamuna Devi [1987].  I’ve heard her squeak with joy upon learning that dinner included this delicious smoky, spicy amalgamation. Now with the bait selected, let me set my trap.

Devi writes that her Baigan Bharta recipe is a Punjabi-style preparation. The recipe calls for cooking the baked flesh of an eggplant with green chilies and spices until the pulp reduces to a thick, savory mass. A literal translation of Baigan Bharta might read eggplant mush. (To my ear the word “mush” sounds so unappealing (except when used as a command while skijoring). My editor might take exception to this criticism and gently chide: “What's in a name? That which we call a rose 
by any other name would smell as sweet.” Perhaps, but Shakespeare was referring to a Montague and not to a mush.)  

How you ready your eggplant pulp for its mushing materially affects the dish’s final flavor. Authentic bhartas use vegetables baked in hot wood ash. Devi writes that “[f]ew vegetables can stand exposure to open heat without protective covers. Classic bhartas are therefore made from those limited few: mature potatoes, yams or sweet potatoes, winter squashes and eggplants.”  Ideally you would bake an eggplant for 45 minutes to 1 hour in a bed of hot white wood ash; this imparts a lovely smoky flavor into the eggplant.

Recognizing that many cannot or choose not to ash bake their vegetables, Devi provides other options for preparing eggplant for a bharta. One of these methods—the one I employ for convenience’ sake—involves oven-baking the eggplant on a baking sheet for 45 minutes in a preheated 425°F oven. Prior to baking, wash, dry and pierce the eggplant’s skin a handful of times with a knife. To approximate a classic bharta’s smoky flavor, Devi recommends rubbing the eggplant with butter and smoked salt before placing it in the oven. The eggplant is ready when its inside is meltingly soft.

If you want to forgo baking in ash or an oven, you can roast or broil your eggplant. Both of these methods involve rotating the eggplant over/under a hot fire. To roast the eggplant, wash, dry and prick the vegetable and place it on top of your stove’s gas burner, stem side pointing up for 5-6 minutes; then turn the eggplant on its side and give it the same treatment. Continue to roast the eggplant until it is completely charred and the inside is very soft. To broil, follow the same general approach as roasting using your oven’s broiler: Rotate the eggplant until it is entirely charred and the inside is butter soft. No matter the method used, the desired product is the soft flesh scooped from the inside of the cooked eggplant. Here is Devi’s recipe (with her asides) for Baigan Bharta.
  • 1 medium-sized eggplant (1-1¼ pounds/455-570 g), freshly baked, roasted or broiled
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) ghee or vegetable oil
  • 1-2 teaspoons (5-10 ml) hot green chilies, seeded and minced
  • ¼ teaspoon (1ml) yellow asafetida powder (hing)*
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) each finally chopped fresh coriander and mint
  • cup (160 ml) plain yogurt or sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) garam masala

* This amount applies only to yellow Cobra brand. Reduce any other asafetida by three-fourths.

1. Slice the eggplant in half lengthwise and carefully scoop out the pulp. Discard the skin and coarsely chop the pulp.

2. Heat the ghee or oil in a large nonstick frying pan over moderate heat. When it is hot but not smoking, add the green chilies, asafetida and cumin seeds and fry until the cumin seeds darken. Add the eggplant, ground coriander and salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture is dry and thick, about 10 minutes.

3. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Stir in the fresh herbs, yogurt or sour cream and garam masala. (You may want to add a sprinkle of smoked salt if you baked the eggplant in an electric or gas oven.) Serve hot, at room temperature or chilled. Serves 4.

Some notes and thoughts.  You can find asafetida powder and garam masala online or buy them in any Indian food market. If you decide to explore Indian cuisine, you’ll find these ingredients indispensible and worth adding to your spice collection. (I’ve looked for but have not found a local source for Cobra brand hing.  Devi recommends dialing back the amount of hing when using other brands, but I don’t.)

Although I’ve made Devi’s Baigan Bharta with yogurt, more often than not I leave it out; I prefer the intense flavor of the unadulterated pan-fried eggplant. When I leave out the yogurt, my editor tops her Baigan Bharta with a cucumber and mint raita.

If you are looking for an outstanding cookbook on Indian food, I highly recommend Devi’s Lord Krishna’s Cuisine – The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking. You might also consider Suvir Saran’s Indian Home Cooking [2004] and Niloufer Ichaporia King’s My Bombay Kitchen [2007]. Saran’s recipes produce stunningly good results—much better Indian food than I ever imagined I could make at home. King’s work, subtitled Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking, warrants special consideration. I love cooking from this book! To my palate, the dishes are exotic yet comforting.  My editor particularly likes King’s Pumpkin Buriyani. Hmm…perhaps more bait for the trap?