Although I love eggplants to this day, a decade ago when I was a vegetarian, I craved eggplants almost all the time.
Italian eggplant parmigiana, Middle Eastern baba ghanouj, Chinese "yu-xiang qie-zi" (literally "fish-fragrant eggplant," but usually translated as "eggplant in garlic sauce") and Indian baingan bharta were my favorite restaurant dishes. I was impressed by the versatility of this purple (or green or white) relative of the tomato, of how it soaked up the flavors of everything around it. It seemed almost magical.
Looking back on my aubergine obsession, I now believe what I really craved was not the flavor of eggplant, which after all is quite bland, but the mouth feel.
[vegetarians continue reading at your own risk...I advise skipping ahead to the recipe on the next page]
Mushrooms, it has often been said, are the closest that the plant kingdom comes to replicating the taste and feel of a piece of meat. In the mouth, the fungi are juicy, chewy, somewhat funky, not unlike a hunk of well-aged beef. Look at the portobello. Is it a surprise that in America this overgrown brown mushroom has become the vegetarian alternative to the hamburger on practically every lunch menu?
I'd like to posit, then, that eggplants are the vegetal version of animal fat. The feel of a piece of cooked eggplant in your mouth is reminiscent of that luscious piece of fat on your pork chop or rib-eye, the one you know you should really cut away, but, oh, it's just a small piece, just this once, nobody's really looking anyway, and you'll make sure you exercise tomorrow. Eggplant is the pork belly, the foie gras, the marrow, the toro of the plant kingdom.
When I was a vegetarian, perhaps my aubergine urges were my unconscious attempt to fulfill some ancient, deep-seated, primeval, buried-in-the-shadows-of-the-genetic-code lust for that velvety, gelatinous, mushy feel of fat rolling around on my tongue?
Something to pursue with my therapist.
Until then, here's my favorite recipe for the Punjabi eggplant delicacy baingan bharta, which was part of N's and my vegetarian Indian party and cooking lesson over the weekend.
After trying out countless recipes for the dish, I found the perfect version in Neela Paniz's cookbook (one of the best Indian cookbooks on the market) The Bombay Cafe, which is also the name of her brilliant restaurant in Los Angeles. She calls it "smoked eggplant purée." I've adapted it here to my taste.
The key to the success of this recipe is roasting the eggplants over an open flame, either on a grill or over a gas flame on your stove. As you can see from the photo, you really want to blacken them all over to achieve maximum smokiness.
I use the beautiful lavender and white rossa bianca eggplants that are available locally, but the more commonly available blackish purple globe eggplants will work just as well. It's best to make this dish when eggplants are in season, which in our area is right now. Buy firm, shiny eggplants and try to use them the same day that you purchase them. As eggplants age and when they are subject to cold refrigerator temperatures, they develop bitterness.
Also, for reasons explained vividly elsewhere, I opted to not include a photo of the finished product. Suffice it to say, bharta is not about appearance, but about flavor. Oh, and that mysterious eggplant texture.
2-3 medium eggplants
1 t vegetable oil
3 T ghee (clarified butter)
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 serrano chiles, minced
1-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced
1 t Kosher salt
1/4 c cilantro, chopped
Rub the eggplants with the teaspoon of oil and grill (whole) over an open fire, either hot charcoal or the flames of a gas burner on your stove, turning occasionally, until tender. Place cooked eggplants in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap until cool to the touch. Peel and cut the pulp into 1-inch pieces.
Cook onions in ghee over medium heat, stirring constantly until golden, about 10 minutes. Add ginger and chiles and cook 2 or 3 minutes longer, until onions are golden brown.
Add tomatoes and cook for a few minutes. Add eggplant pulp and salt, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The texture of the final product should, as Ms. Paniz says, "resemble mashed potatoes." To achieve this, you may need to remove the cover and increase the heat for a few minutes to evaporate excess moisture.
Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve.