My earliest memories of the brinjal is Begun Bhaja. While non-Bengalis funnily drool over it like it is a dish (and refer to it as “Baingan Bhaja” with a weird twang), for us, the Begun Bhaja is a casual sidekick for any lunch or dinner. Cut up roundels of the fleshy fruit, rub some salt, turmeric, and chilli powder into it and deep fry. Done. The vegetable cooks fast too, the rich violet skin turning black and crispy, while the flesh turns juicy inside, and gets a crunchy skin on the outside, tasting both sweet, and umami. Have it with rice and dal for lunch, with luchi or parathas for dinner, or with khichuri (khichri) on a rainy day. The Begun Bhaja has two varieties too. For visual delight, during celebratory dinners, the brinjal is cut longitudinally, from stem to bum, and deep fried with just a simple salt rub. For special lunches, thin slices of the vegetable are dipped into a gram flour, with basic spices, and kalonji batter, and deep fried. That’s the Beguni. All varieties are equally delicious. Other than the Begun Bhaja, which is not exactly a dish, my favourite brinjal dishes are quite, well, odd. The eastern version of the Punjabi Baingan Ka Bharta, is the much-humbler Begun Pora. Generally had during winter nights (also because winter brinjals are fleshier and barely have any seeds), the whole brinjal is roasted on an open flame till cooked, cooled, peeled, and mashed with salt, green chillies, chopped onions, and coriander leaves. It is the simplest of dishes I know, but one that celebrates the sweet-and-smoky flavours of the produce, spiked with the sharp heat of the chillies. The other favourite is an almost medicinal first course during springtime lunches. Neem leaves and diced brinjal are deep fried, and served with ghee and salt, with hot rice. Neem leaves are said to fend off poxes. I absolutely adore the combination of bitter from the leaves, the caramelised sweetness from the brinjal, and the greasy-sweetness of ghee, coming together with piping hot rice. In eastern India, the brinjal is a simple man’s friend. There are fancier dishes, ones that are cooked in mustard sauces, for example, but it is the simpler dishes that truly respect the vegetable. Bangladesh, on the other hand, is obsessed with the brinjal. I was introduced to the Bangladeshi cold mezze a few years back — served with a crude version of the Bakarkhani roti — which includes pounded brinjal with spices, with egg, and with shrimps. While I do enjoy a room temp Moutabel, I am not sure if I am a fan of a cold mezze. But, the Bangladeshi Beguner Khagina, or their version of the bharta, is a delightfully royal dish, heavy on spices, and even has eggs for added creaminess. The Khagina is oily and spicy, and pairs wonderfully with laccha parathas, or Kerala parotas. What is interesting, is that the Chinese also have traditions of roasting brinjals, and then pounding the cooked flesh with garlic, chillies, oil, and cilantro, to be eaten with rice. Otherwise, stir-frying the vegetable is common in south-east Asia. The Romanian Salata De Vinete is also similar to the Bharta. While most of Europe primarily uses brinjals for salads and relishes, the Ratatouille and the Eggplant Parmigiana might just be the most famous brinjal dishes from Europe. Although, having said that, the Parmigiana is almost always better with bird and meat.
Maharashtra introduced me to the baby version of the brinjal, or the vangi, as it is called here. I had my first taste of the Bhareli Vangi at a Gomantak on Lamington Road, in Mumbai, and I have been hooked ever since. The peanut-based stuffing (bite-sized brinjals are half-sliced and stuffed with a spicy peanut mixture and cooked in an oily, spicy, slightly-tart gravy) is genius, lending a textural contrast that I haven’t found in any other region in the country. The Bhareli Vangi pairs beautifully with rice bhakris, and is a meal by itself. I am not exactly sure how nutritious it is, but boy, is it delicious. The secret is to pound the peanuts coarsely, but long enough to release the nut’s fat, which blends with the spices, and transforms into a delicious stuffing for the brinjal, because, as baby brinjals are used, they mostly don’t have the umami flavours of older brinjals. In the Philippines, a variation of the stuffed brinjal, Rellenong Talong, is made with meat stuffings. The Turkish Karniyarik is a similar meat stuffing-based brinjal dish. Back in India, Karnataka’s spicy-pungent Vangi bhath, a cousin of the Bisi Bele, is another wholesome rice dish that makes for a delicious one-bowl lunch.
The other region that does a fine job with the brinjal is the Middle East, and Turkey. From the Moussaka to the Moutabel, the brinjal is roasted or deep fried for different dishes, and served with yoghurt or tahini-based sauces. Deep fried brinjal, topped with yoghurt and a spicy tomato-and-garlic oil, is an integral part of my culinary memories from Turkey. The Baba Ghanoush, and its multiple variants across the Middle East, Greece, Turkey, and Africa (especially Ethiopia), show us that mashing the vegetable into a spicy-smoky pulp to serve with bread is a common practice around the world.
From the simple Begun Pora to the royal Khagina, from being pounded with garlic and cilantro in China’s Yunnan region, to being paired with tahini in Lebanon, the brinjal might just be one of the most democratic of vegetables.