Smoked Eggplant Masala

Summer eggplants are at their peak right now. The round, purple squat ones are particularly good, since they have fewer seeds and plenty of delicious meaty pulp to play with. Smoke them, roast them, fry them or sear them, there is really no wrong way to cook them. If frying, roasting or searing, they will most likely suck up a lot of oil.

Originally from India, eggplant, aka aubergine or brinjal, is a berry by botanical definition. Flavorwise, it could not be further away from a berry. I consider it one the most substantial and “meaty” vegetables out there, and have almost never met an eggplant dish I do not like. In India, there are many interesting preparations of it throughout the country, from pickles to pakoras (a chickpea-battered fritter). However, eggplant is notorious for needing a lot of oil during cooking, and smoking may be the best way of avoiding this.

This recipe is inspired by the Punjabi “baingan bhartha,” which essentially translates into spiced eggplant hash. After the eggplant is smoked, you can add as much or as little fat as you like. However, knowing the Punjabi’s love for ghee, I have included a healthy dose — feel free to cut back or substitute with olive oil. It is best served warm as a main course with roasted vegetables, or as a dip, spread or side dish.

makes ~2 cups

ingredients

1 large purple eggplant (roughly 1 pound)

4 tablespoons ghee, plus 1 teaspoon (approximate, for grilling or roasting)

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 cup onions, minced

1 tablespoon ginger, grated

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 cup chopped fresh tomatoes

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon coriander seeds, cracked

1½ teaspoons salt

¼ cup black currants or raisins

½ cup plain yogurt (for garnish)

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro (approximate, for garnish)

 

instructions

  1. Rub approximately 1 teaspoon of ghee over the skin of the eggplant and place it directly on a gas stove (or barbecue grill) on high heat. The skin will begin to blacken, crackle and burn; the flesh inside will cook beautifully, so do not be alarmed. With a pair of tongs, gently rotate the eggplant over the next 4-5 minutes to ensure that all sides have been cooked through. If the inside of the eggplant still seems hard, place the eggplant in a 350-degree oven for 10-12 minutes to soften it.

  2. Set the eggplant aside to cool for 5-10 minutes. Using your hands, pull and discard the burnt peel (you may need to use a knife to unstick some pieces). Mash what’s left, which should have collapsed into a mess, with a fork or knife.

  3. In a shallow saucepan, heat up the remaining 4 tablespoons of ghee just until it gets shiny on the surface, but not smoking. Add cumin seeds to the pan so they pop (see note). Immediately add the onions, ginger, garlic, tomatoes and turmeric. On low heat, cook the mixture for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently.

  4. Next, stir in the smoked eggplant, chili powder, coriander and salt. Cook on medium heat for 5 minutes then turn the heat off. Fold in the currants and let the eggplant mixture rest for a few minutes. Garnish with a dollop of plain yogurt, chopped cilantro and serve.

ideas / variations

  • Popping cumin seeds in almost any kind of fat opens up their flavor tremendously. But be careful not to let them get too dark a brown or black or they will taste bitter and ruin the taste of the eggplant.

  • Substitute ghee for olive oil or any oil of your choice.

  • To kick it up a notch, add ¼ cup of chopped walnuts to the mixture with the currants at the end.

  • Delicious as a side dish with grilled beef or lamb kebabs

  • If you do not have a gas stove or a grill, I would recommend not preparing this dish, as the smokiness contributes to the flavor considerably.