Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Indian vegetarian food from a Kazakh kitchen

For the longest time, I had a big aversion to cilantro and its relative, lovage, which is used as cilantro in all of Central Asia.  Both herbs tasted like soap and I could not come up with a better way to ruin a dish than to add cilantro or lovage to it.  Fortunately, through years of dedicated practice (riiiight), I came to see cilantro for what it is - a lovely way to add brightness to a dish.  Now, I can't imagine either Baigan Bharta or Chana Masala in this post without a generous handful of cilantro. It adds freshness to cooked spices, bringing them out of the doldrums and back into life.

The Chana Masala, courtesy of Orangette is a staple in my house, a perfect easy meal pulled together from pantry staples and trusted spices, comfort at the end of the day.  The Baigan Bharta has long been an obsession, but I disliked the greasy version often found in take-out.  Fortunately, with the eggplant season still in full swing, I've had plenty of time to experiment with multiple recipes and find the one that I liked.  My mom especially loves this dish and has been a content Kazakh tucking into Indian vegetarian food.

Baigan Bharta
1 medium - large eggplant
1 medium tomato
2 cloves of garlic
1 medium onion
1/2 inch knob of ginger
1 medium jalapeno or 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne
2 - 3 tablespoons of olive oil or ghee
1/2 teaspoon of black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon of cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon of ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
1/2 teaspoon of chili powder
1 teaspoon of garam masala
Sale to taste and a generous handful of cilantro to finish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Wash the eggplant and prick it all over with a fork or a tip of a knife. Roast it (I like lining the baking sheet with foil for easy clean-up) for 45 minutes or until it is soft and sort of collapses into itself.

Meanwhile, heat up a large deep skillet with a couple of tablespoons of oil or ghee over low-medium heat.  Chop the onion and tomato into cubes, finely chop garlic, ginger and jalapeno, if using.  Drop the onion in the pan and fry until it starts turning golden, then add the garlic, ginger, and jalapeno.  Fry for another minute or so, until your kitchen starts smelling like the promise of dinner.  Add another tablespoon of oil and fry the spices for a minute also, moving them around, so that they do not burn until fragrant.  Drop in the tomato, letting it release its juice for a couple of minutes.  Add a couple tablespoons of water, cover, and simmer on low heat for 5-10 minutes to let flavors become friendly.  

Once the eggplant has reached its collapsed state, carefully take it out and let cool, so that you can handle it.  Once cooled, split it in half and scoop out the flesh with a large spoon onto a big cutting board.  Run your knife through the seedy flesh, further breaking down the fibers.  Note how strong eggplant skin is.

Add the eggplant to the pan, mix well and let cook for another 10 minutes under the lid.  Season well with salt and stir in plenty of cilantro.  If you hate cilantro, try a bit of mint or green onion.  Serve with rice and Chana Masala.

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