It’s safe to say that the humble eggplant, or aubergine as we know it here in the UK, is an intrinsic part of not only Indian cuisine but of many culinary traditions throughout South East Asia. With its Indian moniker ‘brinjal’ roughly translating as ‘the king of vegetables’, the importance placed on this fleshy fruit is evident.
Growing wild in Asia for thousands of years, eggplants were initially cultivated by the Chinese. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organisation reported in 2012 that China is in fact the world’s largest producer of eggplant, followed closely by India. The range of shapes, sizes and colours of eggplant found in India demonstrate the fertile lands that typify this country. White, yellow and green varieties are found here as opposed to simply the bulbous, purple versions we know and love.
Eggplants grow on a vine, in a similar fashion to tomatoes and although commonly thought of as a vegetable, are classified as a fruit. The soft, meaty flesh combined with edible seeds and skin make the eggplant a versatile ingredient, easily incorporated into a range of dishes. Its spongy texture lends itself well to curries and dishes with rich gravies as it absorbs juices, providing a succulent bit of bulk to flesh out vegetarian meals.
Additionally, the eggplant offers a range of health benefits such as antioxidants, dietary fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Due to the fact it can be used in so many ways, eggplant is popular in everyday recipes such as chutneys and sambhar as well as at times of celebration. Here are a few of the most popular eggplant dishes of India:
This Maharashtrian speciality usually tops the menu at weddings and other celebrations. This dish involves stuffing eggplants with a mixture of onions, garlic, ginger, tamarind, coconut, peanuts and spices such as coriander and cumin. The eggplants are then cooked in a spicy, tomato sauce and are served with rice or chappati.
A particular favourite of Orissa, this take on the traditional daal involves the addition of chunks of fruit and vegetables to the usual smooth and creamy concoction. Papya, eggplant, pumpkin and potato are the usual suspects to plump up this dish along with grated coconut, dry red chillies and plenty of lentils and spice.
An everyday meal in Bengali culture, this mashed up eggplant dish produces a similar result to the Middle Eastern Baba Ganoush. Eggplants are grilled over an open fire to get a smoky, flame-roasted effect. Next they are minced along with other vegetables, cilantro, tomatoes, chillies, onion, garlic and mustard oil and consumed along with roti or rice and raita. Variations to this recipe include the addition of fish or shrimp.
It almost goes without saying that the iconic dish of India, the curry, has several versions that feature the eggplant, especially in the southern states where vegetarian food reigns supreme. The key is to time the cooking to avoid eggplants becoming overly slimy and allowing them to keep their soft yet firm texture. Tomato based sauces thickened with coconut powder, ground peanuts and lentils complement the eggplant well.
Sample the eggplant, king of the vegetables, in one of the ever-changing, seasonal dishes on the menus of London’s best Indian fine dining restaurants.