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.
Looks like a lovely and delicious way to warm up on a cold winter night! Spicy food makes everything better.
That is a mantra for life, I think!
That is an inspired name for a cook book! We like eggplant in this house because it is a good bulker for vegetarian dishes
Love eggplant! It’s the name I like. Pushpesh Pant. So wonderfully alliterative.
Susan, i wish I could have given you all the Japanese egglplant i harvested from my garden, but couldn’t use. I just didn’t know what to do with all of them. I wasn’t going to replant, but I might have to for this recipe, which looks amazing!
Oh I adore Japanese eggplant! It’s delicious split, marinated, and simply grilled … but I’m sure you knew that. You must have a formidable garden!
This sounds fantastic, Susan. I’ve so little experience cooking Indian dishes but I sure to enjoy ordering them at restaurants. I need to give recipes like yours here a try. I can’t keeping hoping to find them on menus. 🙂
I find Indian food intimidating too, John, because I want my food to taste authentic, rather than generic. (True for all food, really.) I think the main thing with a lot of Indian dishes is give them time, and don’t stint on the fat. 🙂
… Sorry, i had to pause for a moment of salivation. Loving this use of aubergine – to my mind, the king, queen and emperor of vegetables (although I know, theoretically, that aubergine isn’t a vegetable). I could probably give the whole 20lb of aubergines thing a go. Addict? Moi?!
Out of interest, what mustard powder did you use – English or something a little milder? Oh, and your addition of curry leaves is genius. They’re one of those ingredients that gives an ineffable Indian-ness to dishes.
Hot English mustard powder. I’ll make that change. I didn’t cook with curry leaves until I came to the UK, probably because of the embargo, which was in place for at least half a decade, if not more. ADORE THEM. And they’re wonderful with aubergines.
Looks really good!
Thank you! 😀
Looks absolutely fantastic, Susan!
And crazy to know about the nicotine . . .
Thanks, Daisy. And YES, I love these random facts about our food. I suppose it makes sense since tobacco is also in the nightshade family. Does put eggplant in a whole new light though, doesn’t it?
Haha! It does! But it’s a hard toss up to say if I want my nicotine via a cigarette or through ingesting 20 pounds of eggplant 😉
The aroma from all the spices used in this dish must be lovely.
I think my neighbors were smelling this curry for days! It certainly permeated my apartment. But in a nice way of course. 🙂
LOOKS AMAZING SUSAN! eggplants prob one of my favourite favourite vegetables, esp in curries or when deep fried, i.e. when treated with no caution for diet. Didn’t know about the nicotine fact…I do eat a lot of eggplant in summer…shit?
I think you’re okay. Maybe over the course of a summer, if you eat eggplant every day, you’d ingest a cigarette’s worth of nicotine. 🙂
This looks so good. Where do you get your beautiful aubergines?
🙂 Thank you! Are you London-based? I buy all my fruit and veg from Booth’s at Maltby St Market (on Druid St) on Saturdays. Incredible value and beautiful quality.
I am indeed – will have to go and check it out! x
You will both thank me and curse me. Be sure to pay a visit to Bar Tozino for Iberico and to Nath the Butcher (in the arches by Dockley Street). 🙂
Dotty insists that we cook this for an appetizer tonight. I am off to find curry leaves and garam masala.
Thank you so much.
Can’t wait to hear the report.
This looks good! I have half of a large indian eggplant waiting to be used up this week! I’ll have to try it!
Wonderful! You may need to adjust the cooking times based on the size of the eggplant. Let me know how it turns out.