A long time ago, I watched a wonderful Naseeruddin Shah-Shabana Azmi movie, Sparsh. I don't remember all the intricacies of the plot, but what I do vividly recall is a scene in which a group of blind schoolboys, presented with aloo-baingan for their meal, chant in a frustrated chorus, "Hai re kaisi uljhan, phir se aloo baingan!" Loosely, that translates to, "Oh no, what a bore, potato-eggplant curry again!"
The reason this little scene stuck in my head is because I felt the boys' pain. As a child, I too, have had my share of struggles with eggplant. Baingan bharta, which was part of my mother's regular dinner rotation, was not a favorite. It was much too chunky for my liking, and I didn't care for the smoky flavor or the bleak, grey color of the finished product. I didn't enjoy eggplants reduced to mush in sambar, and aloo baingan was out of the question. Frankly, I couldn't have said it better than the boys in Sparsh.
There were some exceptions. One of my mother's eggplant dishes that I actually enjoyed was eggplant fry. She'd marinate eggplant slices in a mixture of salt, red chili powder and turmeric, and then squeeze out every bit of excess moisture from each slice, before shallow frying them to a deep dark-brown shade. Of course, this dish's USP wasn't the eggplant, but the spicy marinade and the frying, which can take practically anything from so-so to crave-worthy.
And I remember vividly the day I fell in love with eggplant theeyal - a Malayali classic - at a family friend's home. The distinctive elements of a theeyal are roasted grated coconut and tamarind juice. You could make theeyal with all sorts of vegetables - bitter gourd, okra, even just plain old onions. But this eggplant version was truly a notch above the rest.
Over time, eggplant has transformed into one of the vegetables that I really enjoy. These days, I find it hard to resist shiny eggplants at my neighborhood supermaket.
To my knowledge, in no cuisine is eggplant more prominent than in Middle-Eastern cuisine. I recently tried a recipe for a smoky eggplant dip from British chef, Yotam Ottolenghi's book, Plenty. It's delicious with toasted pita, and I am sure, will be an equally good accompaniment for other types of bread. Here's the recipe, with some tweaks. Enjoy!
Smoky Eggplant Dip (adapted from this link)
1 large eggplant
1/4 cup organic tahini paste (the original recipe calls for 1/3 cup, but I cut it down to make this a lighter dip)
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses (in a pinch, you might be able to substitute with a mixture of brown sugar and vinegar/lemon juice, but I haven't tried)
1 tbsp olive oil
1-2 tbsp lemon juice, depending on how tangy you'd like your dip
3 roasted garlic cloves (I used 3 cloves from a head of roasted garlic that I had leftover from a previous experiment, but you could just saute the cloves in some olive oil. I find crushed raw garlic too strong for this dish)
a handful of chopped parsley leaves
sea salt, to taste
oil oil, sesame seeds and paprika/red chili powder
Preheat the oven to 500 F (on the broil setting). Next, pierce the skin of the eggplant all over using a fork, place on an oiled, foil lined tray, and char all over under the broiler. This took me longer than I thought, around 40-50 mins in all. Once the eggplant was charred on one side, I turned it to char the other side, until I had a fully charred eggplant. The eggplant is done when it is completely deflated and the skin is broken and burnt.
Next, place the eggplant in a bowl, and allow to cool. A lot of liquid will collect in the bowl, which should be drained off. Chop roughly.
In a food processor or blender, add the chopped eggplant and the rest of the ingredients other than those listed under "to finish". You could leave out the parsley for garnish at the end, or add it at this stage as I did, in which case your dip will be a shade of green, rather than grey/brown. Blend away till you get a mixture that has the consistency of your liking. I like this dip nice and creamy. Taste. You may need to adjust the lemon juice, molasses or salt.
Transfer to a serving bowl. Finish with olive oil, sesame seeds and red chili powder.