Apparently, India has around 2,500 different kinds of eggplants. Or brinjals, or aubergines, or whatever you choose to call them. I used to be impressed by the three or four different kinds on offer at my local sabzi-wallah cart before I read that. Now, not so much. Where are the other 2,496?
Possibly because of the surfeit of eggplant, I eat a lot of it; in stirfries, pastas and salads, but oddly, not in Indian curries - for no real reason other than sheer laziness. All that measuring, chopping and grinding is just too taxing when one doesn't have staff to do it.
But recently, I found a good reason to make the effort. In Rajasthan for the Pushkar camel fair a few weeks ago, I stayed at what appears to be a highly underrated hotel in Ajmer, about half an hour's drive from Pushkar. The building housing the Haveli Heritage Inn was built around 140 years ago, and is now home to two brothers, their wives and assorted help. The wives cooked us the most mouth-wateringly magnificent food - mint and potato parathas for breakfast, hot out of the pan and dripping in ghee; spicy Rajasthani-style chicken curry, creamy paneer with peas. And then brinjal bharta, a smoky mashed eggplant dish, which was universally voted crowd favourite amongst my group - including the meat eaters.
The secret, said the beaming wife/cook, when called out to receive plaudits, was to scorch the eggplants over a gas flame to give them their unique smoky flavour.
My efforts - guided in part by this recipe - didn't quite match her benchmark, but still turned out pretty tasty indeed, albeit without the Haveli Heritage touch of years of practice and - I presume - lashings of ghee.
Turns out, scorching eggplants over a gas flame is a surefire way to also scorch one's own hands, particularly when done with two metal forks in place of tongs. It is also interminably laborious, with each eggplant taking about 15 minutes of patient turning. Don't give up, however, and stick the eggplant in the microwave like a number of sacrilegious receipes on the interweb suggest, as this step really does bring out the smokiness that is the essence of this dish.
Baingan Bharta, or Punjabi-style smoked, mashed eggplant
2-3 big eggplants
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 onions, chopped finely
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1" piece ginger, grated
2 green chillies
2 tomatoes, chopped finely
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp garam masala
coriander, for garnish
Rub oil over the eggplants, theb roast them over a low gas flame, keep turning until the skin puckers and darkens and the flesh is soft. Alternatively, the eggplants can be roasted or barbequed. Set eggplants aside to cool.
Heat oil in a pan. When hot, add cumin seeds and stir until they stop crackling. Add onions, fry till translucent. Add garlic and ginger, then a minute or two later, add the tomatoes and the ground coriander, cumin and garam masala. Stir well, cook for five minutes.
When eggplants are cool enough to handle, slice in two and scoop out flesh into cooking pan. (I also added a bit of skin to add more smokiness). You'll undoubtedly find that the insides of the eggplant are still white, add them to the pan as well. Mash roughly with a fork, stir into the tomato-onion mixture over heat for another few minutes, or until all of the eggplant is properly cooked.
Serve, garnished with coriander, with chapatis, naan or parathas. Or sliced white bread if, like me, Indian breads are beyond your abilities.