Bittermelons and Brownies: How to Eat Eggplant

“I liked eggplant long before Atiya ever did,” complains Amani, my eldest. In my kitchen, eggplant fuels simmering sibling jealousy over a pot of shared taste. The rivalry started when they were young with Bengali Eggplant Bhaji. Sliced eggplant fried in a combination of spices and mixed with rice delivers a simple taste though a complex textures: crispy skin, moist flavorful flesh and roasted spiced oil coated rice. Eggplant bhaji with rice introduced warm heat to otherwise mild child-fare of daal or classic chicken and potato curry. “Begun” in Bengali, literally translates to “no virtue.” Unlike the celebrated bittermelon, eggplant’s nutritional authority is sadly suspect in South Asian cultures.

Italian eggplant can be bitter. Most recipes suggest salting and draining sliced eggplant before cooking. I accepted the occasional eruption of bitterness that destroys dinner as punishment for my laziness. Thankfully it doesn’t happen often. I rarely cook eggplant for guests. The unpredictable bitterness of eggplant gives it a dangerous, naughty vegetable vibe. According to my minimal online research, eggplant can be bitter when young and female (more seeds to protect from seed eaters). This thought invites too many jokes about protective moms and bitter young females. Yes, there are boy and girl eggplants. Apparently, identifiable by the navel, a slit or long line suggests a girl eggplant and a round navel, a boy. This determination is easier said than done. Basically, you want a heavy, ripe, boy eggplant with a round belly button. Contemporary sexual connotations of the eggplant emoji, I’m told by my teenager, makes my advice extra unsavory.  I’ll leave the implications of gendered vegetables for another time. Long and lighter in color, Japanese eggplant is rarely bitter. When given a choice, or not making eggplant parmesan, I always opt for the Japanese variety. You note your risk when choosing and cooking eggplant. Like many potential bitter things, it is worth the effort.

Eggplant and mushrooms are like meat for vegetarians. These vegetables have hearty structure and absorb flavors like a sponge. Peeled, chopped and cooked, eggplant can be smooth and creamy. Thinly sliced and fried, eggplant can be light like summer squash. Sliced, in rounds, with the skin, eggplant can have structure and chew. The vegetable has moods (insert inappropriate young female joke here).  In the Food Network Chopped kitchen, eggplant is the rare actor who can play any role. 

A member of the nightshade family with cousins like the tomato and potato (all three go very well together), eggplant can make undue demands on sensitive stomachs. According to Ayurvedic tradition, eggplant aggravates both Pitta and Vata constitutions. One must be not only careful with the taste of the eggplant but also the effects. Eggplant has personality and power you may not be ready to ingest. Purple eggplant flowers are beautiful and in classic eggplant nuance, have thorns. A vegetable with such personality! No wonder my girls fight over it.

Ingredients

  • 1 medium eggplant or 2 Japanese Eggplant
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon flour (optional)
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil

1. Slice the eggplant into ¼ inch rounds. Salt generously. Let sit and sweat for ½ hour. Rinse and let dry. If using long Japanese eggplants, skip this step. Or just risk it.

2. Make a spice mix of 1-teaspoon of each turmeric, cumin, coriander and salt, ½ teaspoon of chili. Add flour, if uncomfortable with spiced oil laden eggplant. The key is to mix the spiced oil and soft eggplant with plain white rice. The spiced eggplant oil infuses the rice. Eaten alone, this eggplant dish can feel very heavy and oily. Alternatively, adding flour will make a crispy coating. Add enough water to make a batter that clings to the eggplant slices to floured and un-floured spice mix.

3. Heat enough oil in a pan to cover the bottom. Dip each slice of eggplant in the spice mixture, encouraging the spice to cling, and shallow pan-fry each piece, over medium heat, until soft and brown. If using less oil and no flour, cover and allow steam to soften eggplant. In this case the eggplant with have a less roasted flavor.

The eggplant fried with flour in particular does not keep well. It can taste slimy once refrigerated and reheated.

If you find the eggplant bhaji bitter have an egg sandwich instead.

Like life, you eat eggplant by embracing unpredictable bitterness, absorbed atmosphere of flavors, potential indigestion, and a diversity of expression that ranges from light and creamy to dark and roasty.

Begun Bhaji with paratha

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