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An ode to the simple, but exotic brinjal

An ode to the simple, but exotic brinjal
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First Published: Thu, Feb 18 2010. 07 53 PM IST

 Veggie delight: Ramesh was garlanded with brinjals by protesters last month. PTI
Veggie delight: Ramesh was garlanded with brinjals by protesters last month. PTI
Updated: Thu, Feb 18 2010. 07 53 PM IST
As a mother whose kids read her articles, let me begin by saying that this column is R-rated. Keep it away from kids.
Veggie delight: Ramesh was garlanded with brinjals by protesters last month. PTI
To paraphrase the title of an iconic food essay by the late great David Foster Wallace in Gourmet magazine: Consider the brinjal. Genetically modified but roundly rejected by farmers; placed in limbo by India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh; spearheaded by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) through a licence from global seed giant Monsanto; reborn and renamed as Bt brinjal; cheered on by Indian scientists and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, who has spoken out publicly in favour of the genetically modified version, the poor brinjal is not used to such attention. It is a soft vegetable, used to being pounded, mashed into bharta and baba ganoush; a nightshade that shies away from the limelight; a temple offering—the storied mattu gulla variety reduced Udupi Krishna’s blueness; and an example of the nexus where food, sex and politics meet.
At the recent Kala Ghoda festival in Mumbai, blogger Amit Varma asked one of the food-writing panellists to give an example of how food and sex are intertwined. Food, as Mary Eberstadt (who has been described as intimidatingly intelligent by George Will) proclaimed in her 2009 essay for Policy Review magazine, is the new sex. Victorians moralized about sex but had no compunction about gorging on food. Today, in a curious reversal of morality, sexual pleasures are freely available but gustatory ones are taboo, at least in urban cultures. You can smoke, drink, have sex, drop acid but heaven help you if you are fat. So goes the social more anyway.
The humble Solanum melongena—elegantly called the aubergine by the English, crassly referred to by Americans as eggplant, and breezily called brinjal by us—is an example of how food and sex collide. On New York’s Upper West Side is a store called Zabar’s that sells in plastic tubs a dish called “eggplant caviar”. Laden with olive oil and fragrant with garlic, this beaten eggplant has been spooned, licked and swallowed by Russian lovers for centuries, and oversexed but poor New Yorkers for the last 20 years. Like the caviar it attempts to unsuccessfully emulate, this eggplant dish is smooth, even slimy. And slime, for obvious reasons, connotes sex. Whether it is the avocado, caviar, whipped cream or honey, most foods that serve as sex toys to those with a predilection to drip and lick them off human skin, are slimy or at least smooth. So it goes with our baingan.
Herbalists call this the doctrine of signatures. It suggests that plants that look like a part of the human body can affect that part. A mystical German shoemaker called Jakob Böhme wrote the book on this. In it, he argued that nature left a signature on plants to show which parts could be used to cure or affect various human conditions. Walnuts looked like the human brain and were thought to be brain-food; liverwort was good for curing liver ailments. By the same token, eating banana, zucchini and the long green brinjal is good for masculine (shall we say) robustness.
In her book, Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, Isabel Allende lists foods, both ancient and modern, for seducing lovers, kindling sex, prolonging the act, and reviving lowered virility. Truffle omelettes dusted with caviar, she says, produce pheromones or scents that stimulate sexual ardour. Pigs ate these omelettes and grunted their way to ecstasy. In the book’s accompanying recipes, Allende says that erotic foods “should make you salivate and increase secretions in other parts of the body”.
Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses also touches upon the erotic nature of food. She quotes a medieval recipe for a mixture that includes burdock seeds, the left testicle of a goat and crocodile semen. “Rub mixture on genitalia and await the result,” the recipe concludes. Somehow, I think a dildo is safer.
Ayurveda considers the brinjal to be an aphrodisiac. The genetically engineered version should have capitalized on that, rather than giving it the unfortunate name: Bt brinjal or Bacillus thuringiensis brinjal. Tell me, would you eat a thing called bacillus brinjal, never mind that it is insect-resistant and gives higher crop yields? I can think of far more seductive expansions for the acronym Bt that involve human body parts.
Focusing on its aphrodisiac qualities doesn’t do the brinjal justice. It is a versatile vegetable, the lead actor in a number of wonderful dishes, starting with the vangi bhaath of Karnataka and Maharashtra to the baingan bharta of Punjab to the ennai kathirikai of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, to the Kashmiri dahi baingan to the Bengali fried brinjal. Andhra-style stuffed brinjals require hard round tiny purple ones while the long green brinjals do well with delicately spiced dishes. Simple bhartas require nothing more than a charcoal fire and a hand-pounder. A few chilli flakes, some desi ghee and rock salt, all drizzled and mixed with the mashed brinjal, are all it takes to raise this rustic dish to an eggplant caviar.
As for me, I love my vangi bhaath. Traditionally done with the hard purple brinjals, I prefer the softer squishier green variety. The masala is complicated, with many ingredients. Coriander provides the base note while a hint of clove and asafoetida provide its unmistakable kick. Garnished with fried cashew nuts and fresh cilantro, the vangi bhaath is a passionate, if not an erotic, dish. It can be eaten with a simple raita, but a few deep-fried vadams or papads make it sing.
Shoba Narayan recommends a stormy afternoon as accompaniment for a piping hot vangi bhaath. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Feb 18 2010. 07 53 PM IST