Unpopular ideas collide in Baba Ganoush

Baba Ganoush

Baba Ganoush

My love affair with eggplant continues. Any confirmed eggplant haters would be wise to click away now. This blog has become nothing but a vehicle for eggplant worship — maybe I should rename it ‘The Odd purple vegetable in your Pantry’.

In any case. The other love affair I have is with mashing things. Now the very word ‘mash’ arouses deeply unfashionable images in the foodie mind. Perhaps images of an eater who has lost their teeth or not yet grown any; or of overcooked and limp strands; or perhaps images of hospital trays with their scanty TV dinners.

But it is time for mashes, and their French cousins, the purées, to get some respect. There is no other method that combines flavors as well; and if some fat is added, as it is in this recipe, the mash gets a sheen and a nice mouth feel. If the ingredients that go into a mash marry well, there is no reason to scorn it. Plus, there is the thrill of pulverizing ingredients together — many adults have attested that their early love for cooking came from the thrill of mixing things up just to see what would happen.

Or, you can call it a ‘dip’ and feel fashionable again.

Pampered Father

Now for the pampered father, or, ‘Baba Ganoush‘ in Arabic. Apparently a sultan in some ancient royal harem in the middle east came up with this particular eggplant mash…or perhaps he just enjoyed it very much, the OED is not clear on this point. Somehow, this pampered, coy father achieved culinary fame that reached across the centuries and empires, all the way to food trucks in contemporary San Francisco.

What is this pampered father? Roasted, pureed eggplant, flavored with ground sesame seeds (tahini), olive oil, lemon, and other flavorings. It can be eaten as a snack with pita points, or as a dressing in a felafel sandwich.

There is a certain amount of freedom on what other flavorings to add; and here I have chosen a rather unusual addition — that of roasted red pepper. Not only does it add a subtle sweetness, but also little flecks of red. Plus — eggplant and pepper being nightshade cousins, it is a bit of a family reunion.

Roasting sesame seeds

Roasting sesame seeds

Roasted sesame seeds

Roasted sesame seeds

Ground sesame seeds

Ground sesame seeds

Roasted eggplant and bell pepper

Roasted eggplant and bell pepper

Peeling eggplant

Peeling eggplant

Peeled flesh

Peeled flesh

Pureeing

Pureeing

Done

Done

Baba Ganoush with red bell pepper

Ingredients:
  • 2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
  • 1 large globe eggplant
  • 1 red bell pepper (optional)
  • Quarter cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Juice of half to one lemon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Parsley for garnish
Method:

Heat the oven to 450ºF. Rub a bit of oil all over the eggplant and bell pepper and place them on a tray and into the oven. Bake them for half hour to forty-five minutes, turning once or twice during that time. At this point, the vegetables will have completely collapsed and be soft inside.

Meanwhile, heat a small thick-bottomed pan on medium-high heat. Roast the sesame seeds on it, keeping them moving once in a while. Soon an aroma will arise and the color will darken one shade. Turn off the heat. After cooling them for a few minutes, grind them in a clean coffee grinder.

When the eggplant and bell pepper are cool enough to handle, peel them. The skin should come off quite easily due to the baking. Put the flesh, along with the sesame seed powder, salt, olive oil and lemon juice into a food processor and pulse till smooth.

Taste for salt and lemon juice, add parsley for garnish.


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A thousand names for eggplant

Eggplant display (source: via Wikimedia Commons, user Phoebe (Own work))

Eggplant display (source: via Wikimedia Commons, user Phoebe (Own work))

Writing the eggplant post last week left me in a quandary. Since I live in the US, calling it eggplant seems natural. But then all through my childhood I called it baingan in Hindi and brinjal in English. Some of my readers from the UK will probably want to call it aubergine, while Australians, I hear, prefer the term egg fruit. [Update, 3/22: no, from comments, turns out they call it eggplant too.]

United by a common language indeed!

Well it turns out that the names of this humble vegetable have come about through a global game of Telephone (Chinese Whispers in India) involving empires and migrations of peoples. Sometimes the names have gone around the world and even come back to the source, changed, to go another round.

Intriguing.

Wight, R., Illustrations of Indian botany, or figures illustrative of each of the natural orders of Indian plants, vol. 2: t. 166 (1850) [Goovindo] (Source: http://plantillustrations.org)

Wight, R., Illustrations of Indian botany, or figures illustrative of each of the natural orders of Indian plants, vol. 2: t. 166 (1850) [Goovindo] (Source: http://plantillustrations.org)

The story begins somewhere in India near Burma. Before the Sanskrit speakers and even the Dravidian speakers migrated to India, it was largely occupied by the Munda people. Remnants of the Munda people survive today as tribes in pockets. They were already eating a small, spiny, yellowish fruit that tended to be bitter. Being from the nightshade family, it was also toxic. Over the years they cultivated it to be edible, larger, less spiny, less bitter, and to grow in a season. Once in a while, you still feel super sharp spines on the green tops of eggplants — a reminder of how difficult this vegetable once was to harvest.

The later arrivals to India, the Dravidian-speakers and the Sanskrit speakers, based their words for local vegetables on the original Munda words. The Munda word for eggplant survives as echoes in the Sanskrit vrintaka. In fact, they must have known that the tomato and the eggplant are both from the nightshade family, because the eggplant was known as ‘kanta vrintaka‘ while tomatoes were known as ‘rakta vrintaka‘ — presumably, spiny nightshade and blood nightshade respectively.

Farmworker in Sejwat, Gujarat, India (source: Wikimedia commons, user Arne Hückelheim)

Farmworker in Sejwat, Gujarat, India (source: Wikimedia commons, user Arne Hückelheim)

Another Sanskrit name that eggplant was given was ‘vatingan‘ which comes from its abilities to remove gas (=wind gone, or, more pointedly, fart gone). This word became the ancestor of a number of words used all over India:

  • Hindi: baingan
  • Kannada: badne kai (‘kai’ = vegetable)
  • Telugu: vankaya
  • Bengali: begun
  • Marathi: vangi
  • Sindhi: vangan

Interesting. I love eggplant, but I’ve never thought of it as a substitute for Gas-X. Perhaps I should.

Meanwhile, still in the cloudy ancient past, Persian cooks caught wind of it also. There the Sanskrit word vatingan became transformed into badenjan. Iranian dialects still have a range of similar words for eggplant, showing its ancestry: from the Encyclopedia Iranica, we have badengan, patlejan, vangun (similar to Sindhi) and vayemjun. In Afghanistan, smack in the middle, the word is bademjan.

Now remember that eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, famed producer of toxins (for instance tobacco with nicotine, chilies with capsaicin). And by this point eggplant hadn’t had the track record in cultivation to have the toxins bred out of it. So some of the writings on this vegetable from those ancient days are filled with warnings. Persian writers from the Middle Ages blame eggplant for all kinds of ills from leprosy to the mysterious black bile.

But then, they went on to say, salting it removed those toxins, turning it beneficial, and neutralizing the bile. Could that advice be the reason that we in the modern age of the cultivated, toxin-free eggplant, continue to salt it like dolts? Sorry, I meant to say, the Persian scholars have been hugely influential in our current cuisine.

A dish made from eggplant and tomato -- two nightshades

A dish made from eggplant and tomato — two nightshades

By getting the Persian cooks interested, eggplant hit the big time. The Persian lands were conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century. As food historian Rachel Laudan recounts in this essay, from the eighth century on, as the Islamic empire flourished in Baghdad, their chefs adapted Persian cuisine and spread it to their newly conquered capitals. They conquered Spain across the Mediterranean, and took the eggplant with them. The Arabs called it al-badinjan from the Persian, prefixing it with the Arabic definite article ‘al’. The Spanish dropped the ‘al’, and called it berenjena, as did the Portuguese, with their beringela. But Catalan kept the ‘al’, so eggplant became alberginia.

Now the French, nestled close to the Catalan lands, picked up this vegetable and also this word, but they had difficulty with the ‘al-‘ prefix, and rendered the word as aubergine. This word continues to be used today in France as well as England.

Interestingly, the Persian word for eggplant spread to Europe through two independent routes. West of the Mediterranean, it went to Spain and eventually France as aubergine. But east of the Mediterranean, the Arab conquest of Iran took it to Turkey, then to Greece, Italy and Eastern Europe. From the Encyclopedia Iranica again, “the spread of the word bādenjān can be traced in the Eastern Turkish patingen, Turkish and Russian patinjan, Georgian badnjan, Astrakhan Tatar badarjan or badijan.”

Yes, these are eggplants too. A farmer's market haul

Yes, these are eggplants too. A farmer’s market haul

From that to Greek melitzana, and Latin melongena. Latin being a mother language in its own right, its word for eggplant became another fount of creativity. Linnaes picked it up to give its botanical name: Solanum melongena. Italian still uses the melanzana from the Latin. In fact just the other night I had some delicious melanzane alla Parmigiana. The English picked this up, briefly, as melongene, eventually to drop it in favor of aubergine. But they used that word long enough to bequeath it to Caribbean English as meloongen, as it is still used today.

Still with me? The insanity is not over yet, in fact, it is just beginning. Some in England heard the Latin melongena and took it to be mala insana — mad apple.

Mad Apple? We are a long way from Fart Gone. Are we still talking about Egg Plant? Yes.

As a matter of fact, the Old Foodie website quotes what seems to be the source of this mistranslation to ‘mad apple’ — a treatise known as Botanologia, the English herbal, or, History of plants (1710) by William Salmon. The English didn’t just mishear and corrupt melongena as mad apple. They also corrupted Badenjan to Brevun Jains, and the Portuguese beringela to Brown Jolly. It is still known as brown jolly today in the West Indies.

Four kinds of eggplants (source: Thai food blog on Flickr under Creative Commons License)

Four kinds of eggplants (source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thai-food-blog/ on Flickr under Creative Commons License)

Now by this point the English were quite peripatetic themselves; rather than sitting in place waiting for fruits to land on their shores, they were out colonizing and bringing back botanical curiosities to grow at home. They had already become acquainted with eggplant through this route, and grew it as an ornamental. In the sixteenth century, it got described by an English herbalist known as John Gerard as ‘having the bignesse of a Swans egge’. This is probably the source of its current name, eggplant.

However, at this point the English did not consider it food, being from the nightshade family; just like Persian scholars from a thousand years ago, they warned of its propensity to cause disease, everything from cancer to piles to bad breath. ‘Doubtlesse these Apples have a mischevous qualitie,” John Gerard wrote, “It is therefore better to esteem this plant and have it in the garden for your pleasure and the rarenesse thereof, than for any virtue or good qualities yet knowne.’

This name, eggplant, is the one that the English took with them to America and Australia. It must be that they finally learned to enjoy it as food from the French, hence their word for it came from the French also — the elegant aubergine. (There are other examples of this Frenchification of food words: for instance, the English have a perfectly decent word that means ‘cow’ — it is, ‘cow’. But when they used the cow as food, they called it ‘beef’ from the French ‘boeuf’.)

Now, we are ready to come full circle, where I began, and where we began, back to India. The Portuguese colonized India in the sixteenth century, and brought their beringela back home. Either the Indians, or the later colonizers, the English, turned this into brinjal. This is the word that still survives today, as an English word, in India, Malaysia, and elsewhere. We think of this as an English word, but none of the English-speaking countries actually use it.

Notes: Eggplant was actually domesticated in China very early as well, in 500 BC; but I did not cover its trajectory through those lands, mostly because I lack familiarity with the languages. Also, I linked to my sources throughout, and my information is only as good as theirs is. 

Hungry for more eggplant names? Here you go. Not satisfied? What’s it going to take? Here you go.

Tl;dr? Here you go.

Eggplant words

Eggplant words

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How to make eggplant delicious

Eggplant topped with yogurt

Eggplant topped with yogurt

Call it eggplant, call it aubergine, or call it brinjal. Many will tell you that this is their most hated vegetable. I’m not sure what it is — is it that the flesh turns mushy and dark when cooked? Or that it is studded with seeds throughout? Or is it the sharp and yet bland flavor?

Whatever it is, while most people are cowering in fright from the onslaught of the dreaded eggplant, a vast swath of Asia from Iran to northern India is shoveling great mouthfuls of it down the hatch and passing the dish around for seconds. Why? What have they discovered?

One, that eggplant must be cooked through. Completely soft on the inside, almost charred on the outside. None of this fashionable light grill-marks with the al dente bite remaining. (What is the deal with that anyway? Why can’t we cook each vegetable the way the vegetable itself demands it, instead of applying one fashionable cooking method to all?)

Two, use oil. Enough oil. Be not afraid of the fat — haven’t you heard? Fat is good for you again! Eggplant soaks in oil like a sponge, they say, in faintly disapproving tones; not mentioning the crucial fact — that the oil, once it hits the inside at heat, is turning a rubbery sponge into sheer lusciousness.

The other trick? That eggplant goes well with the aromatic trio — onion, garlic and ginger, used in creative ways; and goes specially well layered with plain, thick, slightly-sour-and-slightly-creamy yogurt.

Eggplant peel — a fraught subject. And pre-salting?

One of the first disputes we had in our marriage was over eggplant peel. I love how it crisps up and adds a nice dimension to each bite of pan-grilled slices. While for my husband the peel sliding off the flesh in long strands causes psychic distress. In order to ever be able to have eggplant for dinner, I had to get him to partake; and in order to get him to eat it, I had to peel it.

So I do. But if you do not have a problem with the peel, you should leave it on, because the purple hues of the peel contain the same purple nutrient that blueberries do.

Also, I read in a lot of cooking advice that one must salt the eggplant for 30 minutes, and drain the resulting liquid, in order to remove the bitterness. I’m not sure what I am missing but I don’t find eggplant bitter in the first place. I never pre-salt it, and the result is not in the slightest bit objectionable. Is it possible that the eggplant of yore was indeed bitter and we have bred it out over the centuries? Yes, it is possible. So, skip the salting.

Baingan ki Boorani

A dish very similar to this was made in our home to be eaten with rotis. It is a classic all over Afghanistan and other parts of North India. Madhur Jaffrey has covered it in several of her books as well. But my recent inspiration came from the Feeding the Sonis blog, where Sanjana has made a dish with the same ingredients but different presentation. Check it out!

It involves pan-fried eggplant slices covered with flavored yogurt. Here, let your imagination be your guide. I did not add any green herbs, but anything from mint to scallions or cilantro would work; I did not make a tomato gravy, but that could be used  to cover the eggplant slices as well.

Slicing eggplant, half inch thick

Slicing eggplant, half inch thick

Tic-tac-toe cuts on one surface

Tic-tac-toe cuts on one surface

Pan-fry

Pan-fry

Flipped

Flipped

Flavor ingredients: yogurt, onions, garlic, ginger, chaat masala, red chili powder

Flavor ingredients: yogurt, onions, garlic, ginger, chaat masala, red chili powder

Salt and mash garlic

Salt and mash garlic

Mashed garlic, mashed ginger

Mashed garlic, mashed ginger

Fried onion

Fried onion

Topped with onion

Topped with onion

Topped with yogurt and spices

Topped with yogurt and spices

baingan ki boorani

Ingredients:
  • One large globe eggplant
  • Up to a quarter cup of oil
  • Half to one cup yogurt
  • Half of a medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • 1 inch piece of ginger, less if you prefer
  • 1 teaspoon chaat masala, substitute with roasted and ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder, substitute with paprika for no heat
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Slice the eggplant into half inch wide rounds. Keep the peel on (see notes above). Make slashes across one surface of the slice, in a vaguely tic-tac-toe pattern. The slashes do not have to penetrate to the other side.

Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a large non-stick pan and when shimmering, lay the eggplant slices out in a single layer, slashed side down. They will start to sizzle and slowly brown. It will take about five minutes. Salt the tops with a light hand. Flip each slice, adding more drops of oil if needed and if it looks too dry. Salt the other side too.

Meanwhile prepare the flavorings. Whisk about half to one cup of plain yogurt to make it smooth. Thinly slice the onion. Mince the garlic, and salt it for about five minutes, then mash with a fork or in a mortar and pestle. Also grate the ginger. For this, I prefer my Japanese ceramic ginger grater, that does the job beautifully. But another means of grating it would work as well.

The garlic and ginger, once mashed, simply get mixed into the yogurt. Fry the onion slices in another tablespoon of oil until browned. Take care to salt the onions lightly as they cook, and add a small pinch of salt to the yogurt as well.

At this point, all ingredients are individually salted and can simply be assembled. Before serving, place some slices of onion on each slice, then a dollop of yogurt. Lastly, sprinkle with some chaat masala and some red chili powder, for color and heat. Or if you prefer, and if your onions are crisply fried, place some on top of the yogurt as well.

Enjoy!

Introducing the Eggnach

Eggnach with roti

Eggnach with roti

My People — the Sindhis — have made a lot of contributions to world culture, but I must say this ranks as an important one. Sindhis discovered that spinach and eggplant, when cooked together, meld well, marry well, and make a tasty nutritious brew.

Not only is this technique explored in the very famous Sai Bhaji, but in this rather less well-known dish as well. It goes well with rotis, but would go on the side of rice very well too, if you have some plain yogurt on the side. A very nice accompaniment would be yellow rice — cooked with some garlic, salt and turmeric powder (recipe forthcoming).

I found this recipe in this book and as usual made some modifications.

The Eggnach — eggplant and spinach dish

Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch spinach
  • 1 regular-sized eggplant
  • 1 medium tomato or 2 small ones
  • 4-5 cloves garlic
  • half and inch piece ginger
  • 2 serrano chilies or several smaller birds-eye chilies
  • half a teaspoon coriander powder
  • half a teaspoon cumin seeds
  • half a teaspoon red chili powder
  • salt to taste
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 tablespoon ghee (optional)

Method:

Rinse and chop the vegetables.

IMG_0547 IMG_0548 IMG_0549 IMG_0550

 

Chop the garlic, ginger and chili. Give them a pounding in a mortar and pestle after sprinkling a bit of salt on it to add a bit of roughage and to draw out moisture.

IMG_0546 IMG_0551

A note about salt: it draws out moisture! This is an incredibly useful fact that helps out in various ways. In this case, I pound it with a bit of salt, so that the paste self-makes itself, without adding even a splash of water.

Salt also pre-cooks food as it draws out the moisture, at least that is how I think of it. If you mince garlic, and salt it, in 10 minutes you will see that it has turned mushy and wet, and by the way, the taste of the garlic will not be as aggressive as when it is raw.

So anyway, getting back to our job. Pound those guys to get them to paste up. You don’t need to go the extra mile, just a simple smashing will do.

Heat oil in a thick-bottomed pot. When it shimmers, throw in the cumin, red chili powder and coriander powder. Now enters the garlic/ginger/chili paste. Let it sizzle. Now in tumble all the vegetables, chopped. Salt them, stir them around, cover, and cook for 15-20 minutes on medium first, then, when it comes to a boil, on medium-low.

IMG_0553 IMG_0554 IMG_0555 IMG_0557

Everything you have in there is quite mashable by this point. So attack it with a potato masher or simply the back of your spoon.

IMG_0560

Eggnach mashed

If you like, top it with a teaspoon of ghee, and possibly a sprinkle of lemon juice, and you are done.