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Friday, 2 March 2012

A Post About Brinjals

When I was a kid, I kept a safe distance from most vegetables. Especially the spineless variety. I like some spine, both in people and in my vegetables. So brinjal/aubergine/baingan, as it is variously called, rarely made its way into my plate (in Malayalam, the name is vazhuthananga. If you can think of a scarier name for a vegetable, I will eat my shoe!). So, on the whole, meetings between me and brinjals were rare.

There was just one exception: brinjal fry. This preparation involves slicing brinjals into thin slices (size zero slices - as thin as you can humanly slice them basically), marinating the slices with some salt and red chilli powder, squeezing the hell out the slices to get rid of all the moisture (including all the goodness!) and then frying them in generous quantities of oil. As you can tell, there wasn't very much brinjal in brinjal fry, which is why I took a fancy to it. It was much later in life that I encountered the joys of a good vazhuthananga theeyal. For the uninitiated, there is an entry here on theeyals (after the Gelf, the Malayalis of the world are clearly taking over Wikipedia too). In essence, a theeyal is a dish that comes with gravy that has lots of character. The base for the gravy is roasted coconut, tamarind, and a distinctive set of spices. It is interesting how vivid some of my food memories are. I cannot claim to have the sharpest memory, but rarely forget people, names and good food. My acquaintance with vazhuthananga theeyal was made at the home of a distant relative. It was love at first bite. My mother's kitchen didn't quite specialise in theeyal production. Getting a theeyal together is no cakewalk. If you are using fresh coconut, which is what we use at home, you need to grate it into little shreds which involves plenty of exercise for your arms, roast it until it is just the right shade of golden brown and then grind it with a host of assorted spices.

Last weekend, I came across a pack of shiny purple brinjals in my neighbourhood supermarket. I had a little flashback moment there, just like in the movies, and the image of a mouthwateringly delicious theeyal popped up in my head. And that was how a pack of hopelessly beautiful brinjals found their way into my kitchen.

It doesn't happen very often that I am in an inspired mood on a weekday. But this was one of those rare exceptions. I decided I didn't want any coconut in my curry, but wanted a tangy preparation, just like vazhuthananga theeyal. I didn't really refer to any particular recipe and just threw together the ingredients that I thought would make for a delicious, tangy brinjal curry. The trick is to grind the ingredients for the gravy into a smooth paste - that is the secret to a silky gravy without annoying little bits of onion, ginger and garlic to spoil the fun. This dish is best paired with steaming fluffy rice with a little pickle and a crunchy papad/pappadam on the side. Unfortunately, I have no photographic evidence because the curry was so good that I polished it off in no time. Photos promised when I next whip up this brinjal curry - something tells me it won't be too long before that happens.

Brinjal Curry
(My own recipe)

2 medium sized brinjal/1 large brinjal, cubed
lime sized ball of tamarind

Tempering
1 tsp mustard seeds
10-12 curry leaves.
1 tsp cumin seeds/jeera
1 tsp methi/fenugreek seeds
1 tsp red chilli
1/4 tsp turmeric

Grind to a paste
1 onion
5-6 cloves of garlic
1 inch piece of ginger

Oil- 1 or 2 tbsp
salt to taste

Prepare the tamarind extract using this procedure. Although the link refers to tamarind paste as the base ingredient, the procedure is exactly the same for whole tamarind, which is what I used.

Next, heat the oil in a pan. Add the mustard seeds and when they start jumping around in the pan and going off like fireworks, add the curry leaves, reduce the heat, and add the rest of the tempering ingredients. Once sauteed, add the ground paste and keep stirring like you've never stirred before. Once the oil separates from the mix, add the tamarind, just a little water (around 1/4 of a cup roughly), add salt to taste and let it simmer gently for around 5-10 minutes. Finally, add the brinjal and another 1/4 of a cup of water. Cover and let it simmer gently until the brinjal is cooked (yes, it will be spineless, but this gravy is so delicious that it makes up for the lack of spine). Add more water if you want to thin down the gravy a little. Finally, add around a level teaspoon of jaggery and let that melt into the gravy. Taste, adjust for salt and enjoy with rice.

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