Eggplants are native to India, where they have been cultivated for approximately 4000 years. The culinary use of eggplants was introduced from India to other Asian countries then to the Middle East and later to Southern Europe. In the United States eggplants were popularized by the experimental botanist, Thomas Jefferson, in 1800 CE.
The state of Hyderabad was long ruled by Nizam royalty who enjoyed eating and entertaining with well-prepared pungent foods. Their chefs developed a fusion cuisine that blended local South Indian ingredients with aromatic spices and slow-cooking techniques derived from Middle Eastern cooking. The Hyderabadi sauce used in the recipe below is typical of this cooking style, and is made by blending aromatic cardamom and other spices with local ingredients, including coconut and tamarind. The result is an impressive center-piece for any meal: small eggplants with a colorful gravy, inexpensive local ingredients transformed into royal fare to showcase Hyderabad’s princely legacy.
Perhaps because of their unfamiliar color and variety of shapes, eggplants were not readily accepted into many cuisines outside of India, but today they appear in many familiar dishes such as Italian Eggplant Parmesan, French Ratatouille, and Middle Eastern Baba Ghanoush just to name a few.
Eggplants have an impressive nutritional profile and provide substantial health benefits. They are low in calories and a great source of dietary fiber, making them one of the best heart-healthy vegetables and helpful to digestive elimination. They have a fair amount of many essential B vitamins which help metabolize protein and carbohydrates. Eggplants also contain good amounts of a variety of minerals including manganese, copper, iron and potassium, which serves as an antioxidant helping the body’s immune system. In addition, research has shown that eggplant is effective in controlling high blood cholesterol. The peel of the eggplant, which is seldom removed in Indian recipes, offers substantial amounts of phyto-chemicals that help against cancer, inflammation and some age-related brain diseases.
Despite their great nutritional merits and their beautiful color, not many people are inclined to find eggplant a favorite vegetable, but this Hyderabadi eggplant dish, Baghara Baingan, will transform anyone into an eggplant lover. I promise!
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine, lives in San Francisco, where she is manager and co-owner of Other Avenues, a health-food store.
The eggplants used in this recipe need to be small, not the globe variety commonly found in supermarkets. Smaller eggplants are available year round in many ethnic markets, where they are known by various names. The long, light purple varieties are often called Japanese eggplant, the small dark purple ones are known as Italian eggplant, and tiny, round, white or green eggplants are often labeled as Chinese. In summer time, many local varieties of these small eggplants appear in farmers markets, some grocery stores and produce stores.
4 long Japanese eggplants, or 5 medium-sized Italian eggplants or 10 small Chinese eggplants
3 to 4 fresh, ripe, brown tamarind pods,available in Indian, Chinese or Mexican
market or 1 tablespoon-size chunk, separated from a brick-like dehydrated
tamarind or readily available tamarind paste from Indian grocery stores
¼ cup sesame seeds
½ cup unsweetened dried coconut flakes
3-4 tablespoons safflower or olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
4 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger root
1 tsp coriander powder,
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp cardamom powder, preferably freshly ground
¼ tsp cayenne powder, or more to taste
1 tsp salt, or to taste
½ tsp whole cumin seeds 1 cup water chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish
Rinse the eggplants and cut off the stems. If using the long Japanese eggplants, cut them into 3-4 pieces. Medium-sized Italian eggplants can be cut into two pieces, and smaller ones can be left whole. Then cut each of these pieces of eggplant partly in half, so that each has a slit where the stuffing will go.
Set the eggplant pieces aside.
The tamarind sauce and stuffing will create the sweet and sour sauce for this curry.
If using fresh tamarind, remove and discard the crackly skin and inner strings. Soak the peeled pods in ½ cup of hot water for 15 minutes. Then rub the soaked tamarind with your fingers for several minutes to extract the mealy portion into the water. Using a sieve with large holes or a vegetable steamer basket, strain and discard the seeds and membranes, leaving a tamarind sauce behind. Set this sauce aside.
If using dehydrated tamarind, cut off a tablespoon-sized piece and separate it into small pieces, making sure to discard any strings or seeds. Packages labeled “seedless” often contain seeds. Soak the tamarind pieces in ½ cup of hot water for 10 minutes. Transfer into the a jar of an electric blender or food processor and blend this mixture into a fine sauce. Set aside.
Place the sesame seeds in a heavy skillet and dry roast them until they become fragrant and turn color slightly. The seeds will toast very quickly as the skillet becomes hot, so be prepared to transfer them swiftly from the pan onto a platter. Next, using the same hot skillet, dry roast the coconut flakes. These will turn color even faster, in 30 seconds or less, so be ready to transfer them almost immediately onto the platter with the seeds.
Next, heat 2 tablespoons of oil in the skillet and sauté onion until it is soft and light brown. Add garlic and cook for a few minutes. Transfer the onion and garlic to a bowl and set aside.
Place the sesame seeds and coconut flakes into the jar of a food processor and blend them for a minute. Add half of the fried onion and garlic mixture to the jar, and set the rest aside. Then add the grated ginger, spices, salt and sugar to the jar. Blend these ingredients to form a somewhat dry stuffing, with the consistency of wet corn meal. Do not over blend.
Assembling and Cooking
Hold each eggplant piece in one hand, using your thumb to keep the slit open. With the other hand fill the slit with 1 to 2 teaspoons of the stuffing. Be careful not to overstuff, or else eggplant will break into two pieces. Save any leftover stuffing to add to the sauce later.
Select a large, heavy bottomed sauce pot with a well-fitting lid. Heat the remaining oil in the pot and add the cumin seeds. Roast the seeds for 30 seconds, then add the remainder of the fried onion and garlic mixture. Place the stuffed eggplants carefully in the pot and stir them for a few minutes to cover them with the oil, onion and garlic. Cover the pot and cook the eggplants for 5 to 7 minutes over a low heat, shaking the pot carefully without removing the lid so that all sides of the eggplants are well glazed with oil.
Uncover, add the tamarind sauce, cover the pot again and cook the eggplant covered for a minute or two. Then add the cup of water and the leftover stuffing and cook covered over a low heat for about 40 minutes, Check every 10 minutes, lifting the eggplants gently so the eggplants or the stuffing do not stick to the side or bottom of the pot.
Hyderabadi cuisine is traditionally cooked slowly on a low fire, so be patient to obtain perfection. Alternatively, after adding the water and left-over stuffing, the entire contents can be transferred to an oven-proof casserole with a lid and baked in the oven for 40 minutes at 350 degrees. If you choose to bake, check twice at 15 minute intervals to move the eggplants around so that they will not stick to the pot, and be cooked evenly on all sides.
Most Hyderabadi Biryani recipes contain rice cooked with small pieces of meat, but it is the aroma of whole spices that makes this rice dish a delicacy.
2 cups water
1 cup basmati rice, rinsed, and drained thoroughly and completely
1 tbsp olive oil
½ cup green onions (scallions) chopped finely with some greens included
½ cup slivered almonds
1/8 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 tsp shredded or minced fresh ginger root
5 to 6 whole cardamom pods
1 stick of cinnamon cut into several small pieces
4 whole cloves
½ to ¾ cups fresh carrot, cut into 1/2” cubes
½ to ¾ cups fresh, or frozen and thawed,shelled peas or green beans cut into ¼ inch small pieces
A few strands of saffron, soaked in 2 tbsps of hot milk or water for afew minutes
½ tsp salt or to taste Juice of ½ lime or lemon
A few sprigs of cilantro or parsley for garnish
Boil the water and set it aside. In a heavy saucepan with a lid, heat the oil over moderate heat and sauté the green onions for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the almonds and stir fry for a few minutes until fragrant. Add the cumin seeds and roast for a minute. Add the grated ginger, cardamom pods, cinnamon pieces and whole cloves and stir fry for a minute. Add the carrots and peas or green beans, and sauté for a few minutes more. Add the well-drained rice and continue to stir fry gently for a few minutes so that all ingredients are well mixed.
Pour the boiled water in and gently stir the mixture with a wooden spoon. Add the salt and the saffron with its liquid. Cover and cook for 12 minutes. Uncover to check if the rice is done. Pinch a grain of rice with two fingers to see if it feels soft. If the rice is too dry, and not done, add a few teaspoons of water and cook for a few minutes longer. Sprinkle the lemon juice on top and cover for a few minutes before serving. Then uncover, top with fresh cilantro, and serve with Baghara Baingan or any dish with a sauce.