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A smoked brinjal salad called the ‘mkhabasa’.  (Samar Halarnkar)
A smoked brinjal salad called the ‘mkhabasa’. (Samar Halarnkar)

Opinion | Experiments with an eggplant and other desi adventures

In a time of restated Indianness, we ignore culinary invaders. But what is Indian food without foreign influence? Lessons from the brinjal

Since we live in a time of being Indian, building Indian and buying Indian, I thought I would make my humble contribution by focusing on a vegetable that is native to this vast, ancient land. It is Indian in a way those anti-nationals—the tomato, potato and chilli—are not.

In doing so, I would also like to address the widespread feeling that this column caters primarily to meat eaters, which may be substantially but not entirely true. I may have been born into a family that will eat any and every of God’s creatures but I have been married 20 years to a vegetarian. I am obviously now inclined to adopt and adapt.

So, dear reader, let me talk to you about my experiments with the Bharatiya brinjal, cultivated in India since before recorded history, before the Harappans, the Mughals, the Portuguese—a people particularly important to us because they gave us the tomato, potato and chilli—and the Brits.

You may know it as the eggplant, the aubergine, the baingan or, as we call it here in Bengaluru, the badnekai. This is a good time to explain that I may have erred in calling the brinjal a vegetable. We treat it like one in the kitchen but it is a fruit, as are the tomato and the cucumber. If you would like more precision, the brinjal is a berry, which means it develops from a single flower.

Now that we are done with botanical minutiae, let me explain why I have chosen the brinjal. I cannot say I am overly fond of it but I find it very convenient indeed because the spouse and her substantially vegetarian parents appear to like it. You can grill it, fry it, mash it. It is easy to cook and is easy to mix with a variety of foods.

My mother stuffs it with a spicy coconut and dried shrimp mix, which I find most palatable, but I do not eat this often because the vegetarian part of the family appears stricken at the thought. Nevertheless, I have done a lot of brinjal work this week in the kitchen.

I added grilled brinjal slices to rice, a particularly successful entrée called the maqloubeh, which means flipped over in Arabic. I have served fried brinjal slices layered with a tahini sauce, and I have—as you will read below—recreated a smoked brinjal salad called the mkhabasa.

In case you are wondering why I have so many Arabic-sounding brinjal dishes, that is because I am partial to Arabic ways of interpreting the brinjal—also appropriate given the Arab influences on our history. It helps that I am an avid reader of Our Syria: Recipes From Home by Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi, a book I have previously referred to, a colourful, poignant chronicle of food amidst conflict. It is from here that the mkhabasa recipe is taken, with a few twists of course.

I do not intrinsically have a problem with Indian ways of making brinjal but I admit I do not find a baingan bharta as agreeable as a mkhabasa. This may be because the Arabic ways of making the brinjal draw in a wide range of ingredients and herbs, from pomegranate molasses to pine nuts to parsley, allowing for a range of tastes and flavours. I find the Indian approach of mostly adding spices and hoping they will do the trick uninspiring.

Since the mkhabasa is really a salad—although you are free to eat it as an entrée, as we did—I was forced to add something substantial for dinner: the fish that you can read about below.

In keeping with the indigenous theme of the evening, I flavoured the fish with a fennel bulb (actually, a swollen stalk). We are more familiar with fennel seeds (saunf) but the bulb too is used in some Indian cultures and was known to ancient Indians as a digestive. More familiar to the Mediterranean, fennel lends a nutty, almost sweet flavour to cooking.

I find Indian food much more exciting when it’s allowed foreign influences. So, Jai Hind and all that, but let’s not forget that the richness and diversity of Indian food has much to do with outside influences.

MKHABASA

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 medium brinjals

1 each of red, yellow and green peppers

1 tomato

2 tbsp parsley

Juice of 1 lime

3 tbsp pomegranate

2 tsp extra virgin olive oil

K tsp pepper powder

Salt to taste

Method

Sear the brinjal on a stovetop pan, as you would for bharta. Peel skin and mash. Chop peppers and tomatoes finely. Add to the brinjal with everything else. Bring to room temperature before serving.

FISH WITH FENNEL AND CARAMELIZED ONION

Serves 4

Ingredients

500g fish fillets

1 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder

1 tsp cumin powder

1 tsp coriander powder

1 tsp nutmeg powder

Juice of 1 lime

1 onion, finely sliced

9 garlic cloves, mined

1 bulb of fennel, thinly sliced (discard outer layer)

3 tsp olive oil

3 tbsp almond slivers, toasted

Salt to taste

Method

Marinate the fish in salt, lime juice and all the spice powders for at least 30 minutes. Grill in a greased oven tray at 180 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes, turning over when one side is done. Place in serving dish. In a wok, heat oil and sauté garlic. Sauté fennel and onion until the onion is lightly brown. Layer onion, fennel and toasted almond over the fish.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

@samar11

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