Eggplant : Flavour Sponge

Last week, we started our eggplant exploration, with a predominantly Eurocentric approach. The focus was more on the custardy texture of the eggplant and its seamless interplay with other members of the nightshade family. This time, we will focus primarily on the role of the eggplant as a sponge for flavours, with a journey through Asia. We ended last time with the confit byaldi, a dish with a culturally hybrid name. The “confit” in the name indicates the Frenchness of the dish. The “byaldi”, however, takes us to a different time and place, all the way back to the Ottoman Turks.

“İmam bayıldı” literally translates to “the Imam fainted”, as legend has it that the Imam swooned on tasting this delicious dish of eggplant stuffed with tomatoes, onions and garlic. A variant of the dish called Karnıyarık, adds ground meat to the filling. Two other Turkish eggplant dishes include patlıcan bıber, in which eggplants are cooked with its nightshade cousin, the bell pepper; and the paradoxically named patlıcanlı kebap (eggplant kebab) in which pieces of eggplant are skewered alternately with finely chopped meat and cooked over a flame.

İmam Bayıldı (Courtesy : Give Recipe)

Speaking of dishes combining eggplant and meat, we have to talk about Moussaka, a dish which involves layering slices of fried eggplant (think eggplant parmigiana) with a tomato and meat sauce (think Bolognese) and a béchamel sauce made with flour, butter and milk. It is basically like a lasagna with fried eggplant slices instead of pasta sheets. Although the most popular version hails from Greece, variants of this dish can be found all over the Middle East. The eggplant is a crucial part of cuisines throughout the Middle East, and a very common way of cooking eggplants there is slow roasting it and turning it into puree.

Moussaka (Courtesy : Recipe Tin Eats)

Roasting an eggplant on a direct flame or in the oven makes its tense, shiny skin go dry and wrinkly, while the interior softens into a delicious mush and develops a wonderfully smoky flavour. Microwaving the eggplant would also soften it but the flavours will not be nearly as complex. The Turkish İmam Bayıldı and karnıyarık are also made by roasting the eggplants first and gently splitting them open before stuffing their innards with the good stuff. The word Karnıyarık infact, translates to “riven belly”. A more appetizing sounding eggplant dish is the Turkish hünkar beğendi or Sultan’s delight, essentially cubes of lamb atop a smooth eggplant puree.

Karnıyarık (Courtesy : Give Recipe)

To make said puree, you need to scoop out the soft flesh of a roasted eggplant, and gently peel away the now fragile skin. One of the most popular eggplant dishes anywhere involves blitzing the flesh into a smooth paste with olive oil and tahini (sesame seed paste) and spice it up with paprika, cumin or even coriander if you fancy. And voila, you have babaghanoush or moutabal, a staple dip in mezze (Middle Eastern appetizers) along with hummus (chickpeas and tahini) and muhammara (walnut and roasted peppers), served with pita bread. Other noteworthy mashed eggplant dishes include the Persian dishes boranie bedemjan (made with spinach) and mirza ghasemi (cooked in a tomato garlic sauce).

Boranie bedemjan

The soft flesh of a roasted eggplant has been put to good use in India as well. Cook it with onions, tomatoes and powdered spices and you get baingan ka bharta, a delicious vegetarian Indian dish which goes perfectly with rotis or paranthas. Indians, with their penchant for spices, can transform the bland eggplant to a work of art. The eggplant is a blank canvas, and the Indians know exactly what colours to add to create a masterpiece. Baingan ka bharta is a case in point.

Baigan ka bharta (Courtesy : Cook with Manali)

Bengal’s addition to the mashed eggplant compendium is ridiculously simple yet absolutely delicious. Mash the flesh up roughly, add some pungent mustard oil, finely chopped onions and green chillies, and season with salt. You could add some roasted garlic or some chopped tomatoes, roasted or fresh. A generous handful of freshly chopped coriander, a quick mix and you have one of the simplest yet one of the most delicious Bengali comfort foods, begun pora (burnt eggplant). Not as heavy-handed with spices as the bharta, it combines a handful of ingredients which create a symphony of flavours in your mouth.

Begun pora (Courtesy : Gastronomic Bong)

Indians often use a lot of small eggplants for their dishes which involve stuffing, like the bharwan baingan (stuffed eggplant), in which small eggplants are stuffed with a complex spice paste and fried and then dunked in a gravy. A key component in the Gujarati undhiyu or oondhiya are small eggplants stuffed with a mixture of fresh coconut, coriander leaves and other ingredients. This already complex component is a part of an even complex, ingenious medley of vegetables and fenugreek dumplings. Just like the undhiyu, many Bengali dishes use eggplants in a supporting role in vegetable medleys like shukto and laabra. Chunks of eggplant can also be added to light fish curries (jhols), where they soak up the delicate flavours and become deliciously succulent.

Undhiyu (Courtesy : Tarla Dalal)

Further East, The Thais also use eggplants in their curries. Two additional, unique varieties of eggplant are found in Thai cuisine. The tiny and round Thai eggplant, about the size of a golf ball, can be eaten raw, unlike most of its cousins. They are commonly used in Thai curries where they soften up and absorb the flavour of the sauce. Another peculiar variety used in Thai curries are the pea eggplants, so called because they look exactly like peas. They can be eaten raw, with a chilli sauce, or put into curries. They are pretty neutral in flavour like most other aubergines and provide a textural contrast as these succulent orbs pop in your mouth as you bite into them.

Thai eggplant green curry (Courtesy : Live Eat Learn)

Although not as widespread as in the Middle East, eggplants are seen in Far Eastern cuisines too. Here you see the eggplant soaking up a whole range of other flavours. A typical Sichuan-style eggplant stir fry will combine eggplant with the heady flavours of garlic, ginger, Sichuan pepper and soy sauce. The Korean Gaji namul uses their iconic gochujang chilli paste, sesame seeds, garlic, soy and fish sauce. The Japanese Nasu Dengaku pairs the delicate eggplant with the robust savouriness of miso paste. Wherever the eggplant travels, from the Middle East to Far East, it soaks up the flavours of the region like a sponge.

Gaji Namul (Courtesy : Maangchi)

No ingredient is a better sponge for flavours than the humble eggplant. From the tahini to cumin to gochujang, it soaks in everything. And as we saw last time, the eggplant undergoes the most glorious transformation of texture as it cooks. A soft, custardy veggie that imbibes flavours from all over the world, the eggplant deserves way more credit than it gets. It is time to look at this humble vegetable in a new light, and give it the respect it deserves.

Banaghanoush (Courtesy : Tori Avey)

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