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Eggplant was not high on my list of foods growing up. Slimy and tasteless, I didn’t understand why anyone would want to eat it. My brother and dad were not fans either  So mom would make some for herself and make another vegetable for us.

Eggplants ready for the oven.

But, thankfully, we and our taste buds grow up. Eggplant is smokey, spicy, and hearty enough to be the main part of the meal. And, apparently, the eggplant is actually an Indian vegetable in origin. Hindustan Times journalist Vir Sanghvi writes that, while parts of India’s cuisines are borrowed from other cultures courtesy of trade with the rest of Asia and the Arab world over the millennia, the eggplant is actually indigenous to the subcontinent — dating as far back as the ninth century BC.

“We gave it to the rest of the world,” Sanghvi writes. Even while the Turks, Italians, Arabs, and others have well known eggplant dishes — baba gnoush, anyone? — he says that eggplant is actually indigenous to India. “It appears in all our ancient texts — even our epics — and we have had the first ever name for it: the Sanskrit vrantakam from which the Hindi baingan came. As for the Arabic name of which so much is made, well it looks like Badinjan is derived from the Sanskrit vrantakam.”

What you’ll need:

  • 3 smallish eggplants, about 8 to 9 inches long
  • 1 medium white onion, chopped (about 4 to 5 ounces)
  • slivered garlic cloves to taste
  • 2 cloves of diced garlic
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1 dried red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1 pinch asafoetida
  • 1 teaspoon dhana jeeru (a mix of ground coriander and cumin seeds)
  • 1 teaspoon jeeru (cumin seeds)
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala*
  • 1/4 teaspoon aamchur powder (mango powder)
  • 1 cup of Ro-Tel (or, if you live in a Ro-Tel deficient area, 1 teaspoon finely chopped jalapenos and about 1/2 cup tomatoes)
  • Chopped cilantro to garnish

*Garam masala typically consists of cumin, cloves cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and peppercorns. The exact mix of spices depends on the tradition of each house, and is typically passed on from mother to daughter, something I will write about for a future blog post. You can buy it in Central Market or Whole Foods but it will be cheaper in an Indian grocery store. Garam masala is not spicy; it’s meant to give food a deep warming flavor.

Cooking instructions:

Lightly oil the eggplants. Cut slits into the skin and insert garlic slivers to taste. Set eggplants on a cooking rack that fits on a baking tray (line tray with foil for easier clean up) and broil on high for about an hour. Rotate the eggplants halfway. At the end of the hour, the skin should look and feel crackly. Take the eggplant out of the oven — and once you can touch them easily — peel off the skin and take as many of the seeds out. The remainder of the eggplant will have the consistency of thick applesauce. Set aside.

For the masala, heat up the vegetable oil, and add jeeru and asafoetida on medium-to-low heat, until jeeru becomes brown-reddish. Add 1/2 medium white onion and saute. Add the shredded ginger. Add Ro-Tel (or Ro-Tel substitute) and reduce heat to a low simmer; allow liquid to burn off.

Add salt, turmeric powder, dhana jeeru, aamchur powder, and cayenne. (Spice levels can be adjusted, so taste as you go, to see if you want more salt or spice.) Add tomato paste. Then simmer until you see the oil separating, about 20 to 25 minutes. Fold in eggplant mixture. Top dish with cilantro and serve.

I usually eat this vegetable dish with Indian breads, thin rotlis or more toothsome naan, but I can see this vegetable topping rice or even a grain like quinoa. Scoop it into lettuce wraps for a vegetarian, masala-style taco that’s topped with finely chopped radish and parsley. Or, what about using it as the filling for a different take on verde enchiladas?

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