Bharvaan Baingan: Indian Spice Stuffed Baby Eggplant
I know that eggplant won’t really be in season until the summertime, but when I saw a heaping pile of these lovely little baby Barneys in the grocery store, well, I was simply smitten. I adore eggplant. I love eggplant breaded and smothered in tomato sauce and cheese, smoky grilled, roasted, sauteed, stewed, pureed – I just love eggplant. I can also, very clearly, pinpoint the first time that I realized that eggplant was on my friend’s list: it was when I had fiery hot Szechwan eggplant for the first time.
Up until that point I had only experienced spongy, seedy, bitter large eggplants which had been chopped up for ratatouille, or tossed into a stirfry. I was less than impressed. But Asian eggplants, well, they showed me the way. Tender, with a fine texture and gently sweet taste, my first painful bite of those chili coated oblong shaped nuggets-o-joy was like an aubergine catharsis. I was slightly in awe, and decided to rethink my previous vilification of purple vegetables in general. Over time, I’ve realized the error of my ways and now I’m quite happy to eat any eggplant served any way that I can get my greedy little paws on it. Have you ever had penne with sausage in a pureed eggplant sauce with roasted pine nuts? No? Because you should. That’s all I’ll say on that.
My favorite type of eggplant is a high toss between the long, slender Asian eggplants, and the adorably charming little baby eggplants, each one about the size of a hen’s egg. Those ones are tender, slightly sweet, and for the most part they don’t have the bitterness that you expect to find in an Italian eggplant which hasn’t been properly salted and drained. And did I mention that they’re absolutely endearing to look at? I just want to pinch their chubby little purple cheeks, I do!
Eggplant pairs well with many types of cuisine, from the Mediterranean to the Middle East, and from Asia to North Africa. I like a vegetable that’s versatile, because when the cooking mood strikes I never know what continent I’ll be landing on. But when it came to the first baby eggplants that I’ve had in months, well, I wanted one of my favorite meals. I pretended to be considering what to make with them, and tossed out a couple of ideas at Mike.
“I could make those baby brinjals! You know, the Indian stuffed eggplant? That are stuffed with coconut and spices?”
“Or I could do Szechwan eggplant…although that seems like such a waste to just chop them up like that….”
“Or I could make Indian STUFFED eggplant. How would that be? Or…something Italian.”
“Maybe I should just stuff them. With spices! How does that sound?”
Despite my obvious affinity for eggplant, particularly the wee darling ones, this isn’t…um…how do I say this diplomatically. This is a rather ugly dish. Look, I understand. You look at stewed eggplants and think, “Huh. Yeah…(last time I come for dinner over here!)” But give them a shot, will you? Because sometimes the dishes that are most lacking in aesthetics also happen to be the most flavorful. It’s true. Cross my heart and hope to eat eggplant (I was never very good at taking risks). And believe you me, this dish has spicy, exotic, intriguing flavor in scads.
One more note before we begin, though. Open your windows now and crank up the hood fan on your oven before you start. You’ll thank me for this later.
Bharvaan Baingan: Indian Spice Stuffed Baby Eggplant
Serves 4 as an entree, 6 as one of several dishes
- 15 small or 12 relatively large baby eggplant (brinjal)
- 4 tbsp cooking oil, divided
- 1 medium onion
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1.5″ piece of ginger root
- 1 tsp cumin seed
- 1.5 tsp fennel seeds
- 2 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 1.5 tsp hot red pepper flakes
- 1 tbsp Qasuri Methi *
- 2 tbsp tamarind paste **
- 3/4 cup unsweetened grated coconut ***
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tbsp garam masala
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tbsp red chili powder, preferably an Indo-Pakistani variety which is spicy hot
- 1.5 tbsp brown sugar ****
- salt to taste
- 2 cups + 3 tbsp water
* Qasuri methi are dried fenugreek leaves, and they can be found in specialty stores or East Asian markets. If you can’t find dried qasurit methi leaves, you can use 5 curry leaves chopped very fine. If you don’t have an East Asian grocer in your area, you can sometimes find curry leaves in a well stocked Chinese market as well.
** Ah, tamarind paste. 2 tbsp of tamarind paste is about the size of a golf ball and you can just pinch it off most of the time. If you can’t find tamarind paste, only tamarind syrup, use about 1/4 cup and add another 2 tbsp of water to the coconut and spice mixture as it grinds.
*** If you can find freshly grated coconut, or if you have a yen to grate it yourself, by all means – here’s your chance. I was feeling far too lazy to crack, shell and roast a coconut though, and when you just don’t have the spirit to go whole hog, a bag of shredded unsweetened coconut will do just fine.
**** Traditional Indian recipes often use jaggery which is solidified cane sugar. If you don’t have jaggery, brown sugar is a fine substitution.
Chop the onions into about 1/4 inch dice, and chop the garlic and ginger slightly finer to about 1/8 inch dice.
Heat up 2 tbsp of the oil over medium high heat. When the oil is glistening add the cumin seed, fennel seed and fenugreek seed. Let the spices fry just until they’re aromatic and starting to pop, which will take about 30 seconds – 1 minute.
Add the onions, garlic, ginger, hot pepper flakes and qasuri methi (or curry leaves). Sautee until the onions are translucent and the garlic and ginger are starting to soften. If you notice that the onions or garlic are starting to burn, reduce the heat so that they can just sautee.
As soon as the onions are cooked through and soft, remove the pan from the heat.
Add 1/3 cup warm water to the tamarind in a small bowl and massage it gently with your hands until it forms a uniform paste. Depending on where you purchase your tamarind, there may be seeds mixed in with the pulp. As you massage the tamarind to dissolve it, feel around and discard any pits that you might find.
In the bowl of a food processor add the coconut, all remaining dried spices, brown sugar, tamarind with juice and the sauteed onion mixture. Drizzle on 3 tbsp of water and puree the mixture until it forms a thick paste.
Trim the stems of those beautiful aubergine globes until they’re all a scant 1/2 inch long. Carefully cut the eggplant vertically in half until you’re about 1/4 inch from the crown (stem end). Cut again down the other half so that the eggplant is cut almost all of the way down into quarters, but still holds together well at the crown.
Carefully spread the eggplant quarters and stuff the spice mixture into the center and between the slits, gently pressing it back together into a stuffed oval shape. Really try to pack in as much of the spice paste as possible.
There will be some stuffing mixture left over, no matter how liberal you were when filling the eggplants. Dissolve any remaining spice mixture into 2 cups of water.
In your largest saucepan heat up the remaining 2 tbsp of oil. When it’s glistening and just starting to smoke, lay the stuffed eggplants down in a single layer and let them sizzle for 30 seconds before flipping them and letting the little gems sizzle for 30 seconds on the other side. The skins will darken and look glossy, even slightly scalded in places. Immediately pour in the two cups of water mixed with the remaining spice mix, turn the heat down to minimum, and cover the pan with a lid.
Let the eggplants cook, covered, for 20 minutes.
Take the lid off, turn the eggplants over, and let them cook uncovered for an additional 15 minutes. You can either gently turn the eggplants or spoon sauce over them periodically as they cook, and the ‘gravy’ that they’re sitting in will start to reduce slightly and thicken up as it simmers.
The eggplant will be soft and tender but still hold together when they’re fully cooked, and that glorious spicy sauce will have permeated through each delectable bite.
Spoon the eggplants and their spicy gravy into a serving vessel, and garnish it with slices of fresh lime and a sprinkle of cilantro if you feel the yen. Normally I do feel the yen, but sadly my stock of cilantro was depleted so I used some parsley instead. Well, hey, you do what you’ve gotta do sometimes.
A face that only a mother could love, but boy do I ever love this Bharvaan Baingan. And just remember: the prettiest girl in the room doesn’t always want to be your friend. Sometimes it really is what’s (spicy and stuffed) inside that counts.
Bharvaan Baingan can be eaten with some warm, fresh naan to sop up all those juices, but I like it served over rice – particularly a slightly sweet, fragrant, coconut scented jasmine rice that’s been studded with glistening green peas. Now THAT’S dinner.
A quick squeeze of lime to brighten things up, and you have the flavors of East Asia in the palm of your plate. Isn’t it nice to go globe-trotting from the comfort of home?