With its purple watertight jacket encasing a firm white interior, the humble eggplant really doesn’t look like much. And indeed, on its own, it is pretty plain. But give it a stage and a couple of flavours to work with, and you will be marvelled by the things it can do. In this series, we will explore the variety of eggplant dishes in Europe and Asia.
Let’s start with a little etymology. Back in the 18th century, these vegetables, also called aubergines in the UK and brinjal in India, were small, round and white, looking a lot like goose or hen eggs, which earned them the sometimes confusing name “eggplant”.
Eggplant etymology is very murky territory, with the Indian “brinjal” actually arising from the Portuguese word berengela which, ironically, was morphed into its current form via multiple modifications as the original Sanskrit word “Vatimgana”, travelled from the Indian subcontinent, through the middle east, into Africa, and finally into the Iberian peninsula. A more detailed etymological discourse will have to wait for later.
When purchasing an eggplant, the rule of thumb is to go for one with fewer seeds, as seeds impart an unpleasant bitterness to whatever dish the eggplant is used in. Small, young eggplants would be your best bet. Among the larger, older specimens, go for the male varieties as they have fewer seeds. They can easily be distinguished from the female as they have a relatively shallow indentation at the base of the vegetable as compared to a deeper indentation in the females. Now that you have your eggplant, let’s get cooking.
Let’s start with one of the simplest dishes, which incidentally, starts at home. The simplest thing you can do with an eggplant is to cut it up and fry it in oil to make the Bengali favourite, begun bhaja (fried eggplant). Depending on your skills, you could cut them into simple rounds or even lengthwise, right through the stalk. Before frying, they are lightly coated with salt, sugar, chilli and turmeric powder to amp up the flavours.
As it cooks, the firm, apple-like flesh of the eggplant softens up and becomes almost custardy, while at the same time developing a thin, delicious, caramelised crust. The skin softens up and also becomes edible, although some dislike the texture. Loochi and begun bhaja, cut lengthwise with the stem intact, was a staple of the old-school biyebari feast. Perfect with a simple meal of rice and dal or even with khichuri, begun bhaja is a perennial favourite of all Bengalis.
You could step up your game and coat your eggplant slices before frying them. Here, you are faced with two options. You could cut thin slices and dunk them in a batter, preferably a mixture of besan (chickpea flour) for its nutty flavour, and rice flour which provides the resulting fritters with a very satisfying crunch. And voila, you have beguni, another Bengali classic, the perfect evening snack with a cup of tea and a bowl of moori (puffed rice), a drizzle of mustard oil with a couple of green chillies on the side.
Another option would be to use the dredging technique of coating the pieces in flour, beaten egg and seasoned breadcrumbs before frying. You could add some grated parmesan and herbs to the breadcrumbs to take it up a notch, and you’ve completed step one of making an Italian classic, Melanzane Parmigiana.
Although traditionally eggplants are dusted in flour for a Parmigiana, as a rich coating can make the resultant dish heavy and bready, the dredging method could be used as an alternative (just don’t tell the Italians). Once you’re done frying, the slices are laid out in the baking dish, alternating with tomato sauce, torn leaves of basil and slices of mozzarella. It is then topped up with more cheese and baked till golden and bubbly.
Okay, quick botany lesson. Eggplants belong to the nightshade or Solanaceae family, a large group of plants, many of which have toxic alkaloids. Interestingly though, many commonly used vegetables belong to this family, including potatoes, tomatoes and bell peppers. This botanical connection might explain why these vegetables work so well together, and the eggplant parmigiana is a case in point.
There are two great Sicilian dishes that celebrate the glory of the eggplant and its harmonious interplay with its nightshade cousins. One of these is the pasta alla norma, a vegetarian pasta dish that uses eggplant, tomato and ricotta salata, a salted sheep-milk ricotta. There’s also the caponata, a kind of relish which combines eggplants with tomatoes, olives and capers, puttanesca-style. Other variants use bell peppers and potatoes (both nightshades) and even pine nuts and raisins. Another similar nightshade melange from a neighbouring country, however, has become much more famous.
Move north from Sicily into Provence in France and you are greeted with a classic that has become famous the world over, ever since Pixar’s Ratatouille came out in 2007. The original dish which gives the film its name is a rustic vegetable stew combining eggplants with tomatoes, bell peppers and zucchini, and flavoured with herbs like bayleaf, oregano and basil. Perfect for a summer’s day with a slice of bread.
The film version of the dish, however, is not so rustic. Ever since the 1970s, chefs have been trying to make a posh version of this rustic stew by cutting the vegetables into thin slices instead of rough chunks. Chef Michel Guerard came up with a version in which he used thinly sliced vegetables, removed the peppers and added mushrooms. He called it “confit byaldi”.
When Chef Thomas Keller, the food consultant for Ratatouille was asked to come up with a version worthy of being served to a food critic at a posh restaurant, he chose Guerard’s dish, but re-added the pepper flavours into the dish in the form of a piperade (tomato and bell pepper sauce) for the base, topped off with thin slices of eggplant, tomato and zucchini, then baked. No wonder Anton Ego was moved.
The name “confit byaldi” is an etymological hybrid. The word “confit” is French and refers to the cooking of meat in its own fat, as in confit duck. It basically hints at the French influence of the dish. The “byaldi” part transports us to a different part of the world. Join us next week as we continue our eggplant exploration by turning our attention to Asia, from the Middle East to the Far East.
2 Comments Add yours
My crave for eggplants have shooted high up….waiting for more such blogs…