The versatile aubergine is so gloriously exotic that it should occupy some mystical plateau, like chocolate. The Mayans weren’t mixing eggplants into their sacred ceremonial brews, but they should have been. The idea is not so farfetched, either – the eggplant apparently contains more nicotine than any other plant except tobacco (although you would have to consume 20 pounds of eggplant to ingest the same amount of nicotine in a cigarette). And of course the eggplant is a member of the nightshade family (along with potatoes, tomatoes, and capsicums). For this Awadh curry I used Asian eggplants, which have thinner skin and more delicate flesh than Italian eggplants. Unlike Italian eggplants, Asian eggplants do not have to be peeled: the skin is tender and not bitter. Fully cooked, Asian eggplants have a consistency like hot custard. Hot, savory, delicious umami custard.
I adapted this recipe from the excellently-named Pushpesh Pant’s India cookbook, and it is a delightful winter curry. It’s a dish that needs to be gentled along (plan on at least one to one-and-a-half hours of cooking time). The spice paste is created gradually from onions, garlic, ginger, tomato, coriander, mustard, garam masala and cloves, so the flavors develop and become layered, and then the aubergines are stuffed and cooked slowly until they are completely tender and infused with the delicious spices. Ordinarily, I detest cloves, but to my surprise, they are the ingredient that unifies the dish, knitting so well to the other seasonings that, even having just cooked these aubergines, I couldn’t at first identify the heady, musky flavor that made the dish sing.
In addition to some other minor modifications, I added curry leaves. Curry leaves feature commonly in South Indian cooking (Awadh is in the north of India), however I thought that they would work with this dish and I was right. Curry leaves have a uniquely oily, nutty, aromatic quality for which there really is no suitable substitution. Until recently, apparently, there was an embargo on curry leaves in the USA, but they reportedly are now widely available in Indian food stores. Buy them fresh, wrap them well, and freeze what you don’t use right away.
400 grams (about a pound) of small Asian eggplants
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2-3 cm (about an inch or so) ginger, peeled and cut into chunks, then pulverised with a little water into a paste
2-3 large garlic cloves, peeled and cut into chunks, then pulverised with a little water into a paste
4-6 plum tomatoes (if using fresh, blanch and remove skins, but tinned tomatoes are fine for this recipe)
1.5 teaspoons coriander
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon mustard powder (I used hot English mustard powder)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 – 1 teaspoon cayenne (depending on the spiciness of your cayenne and your tolerance for spice)
3-4 whole cloves or 1/4 teaspoon clove powder
1-2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
About a cup (200 ml) of water
8-10 fresh curry leaves (optional)
Quarter the eggplants by slicing them lengthwise up to the stems, while leaving the stems intact, and then turning them and slicing them again. Smaller eggplants need only be sliced in half.
Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy bottomed pan until quite hot but not smoking. Add the chopped onion and cook, stirring frequently, until soft but not brown. Reduce the heat to medium and add the ginger and garlic pastes and spices. Cook for about another five minutes, stirring from time to time, until the garlic has released its characteristic aroma and started to smell sweet. If you are worried about the spices burning, you can add a little water to the pan. Add the tomatoes, breaking them up with a wooden spoon, and one teaspoon of the salt. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated, the tomatoes have broken apart, and the mixture has become a lovely dense orange paste. Taste and adjust seasonings. Remove the spice paste from heat until it is cool enough to handle.
Stuff the split eggplants with the spice paste, distributing evenly. Then return the eggplants to the pan in a single layer, adding about ½ cup (100 ml) of water. Cover and cook over medium low heat for about 45 minutes, turning the eggplants carefully with tongs every 10-15 minutes, or until the eggplants are completely tender on all sides. If using the curry leaves, add them whole after about 20 minutes. The oils and natural juices should produce enough liquid to cook the eggplants, but if necessary feel free to add a little more water during the cooking process. This is a “dry” curry, so at the end of the cooking time, the liquid should have largely evaporated, leaving the eggplants coated in the delicious spice paste.
Serve with rice as a side dish. Makes 4-6 servings.