Baingan Bharta: A Tale of Pantry Desperation and Innovation

It did begin with me alone in the kitchen with an eggplant, but this wasn’t some lame attempt to recreate a Laurie Colwin essay. I was trying to come up with a quick meal using only the ingredients I had on hand that could be easily reheated. And considering I hadn’t been shopping all week, this was a particular challenge. That’s when I remembered the eggplant. Two of them. Trapped in my crisper for a week, or was it two? They couldn’t still be good. But against all odds they looked fine. They smelled innocuous. I cut into them, surprised to find completely typical, fresh eggplants. Now I just needed a plan.

Eggplant recipes are not hard to come by, but ones that by some alchemy took the exact ingredients I had on hand and turned them into a meal – I was beginning to think it would take a miracle. While looking up curry recipes (coconut milk and curry paste are in my regular arsenal, but it felt lame with no other vegetables to include) I came across one for Baingain Bharta, a hearty, fiery Indian mush of a dish. I seemed to have everything it called for – eggplant, cumin, onions, ginger, even Jasmine rice to serve it over – except for two key items: tomatoes and chilies. Desperate, I stared into my pantry trying to mentally will ingredients to appear and battling with myself over whether I should just suck it up and go to the market. Then my eye caught the tomato sauce. And not just any tomato sauce – arrabiata. Tomatoes and chilies: check.

The recipe I ultimately came up with is an amalgamation of numerous recipes with a number of alterations based on what I had. In the future I’ll try fresh tomatoes and a chili in place of the jarred sauce, but it really was a remarkable substitute and actually lent spice and flavor to the whole thing. I didn’t have garam masala so threw in ras-al-hanout instead. They are by no means the same blend of spices, but ras-al-hanout is essentially the garam masala of North Africa and the Middle East so I thought I’d give it some local flavor. I do wish I’d had fresh cilantro, but coriander powder helped fill the gap. Served over rice my rendition of Baingan Bharta was as good as any I’ve had – it had a slight heat, great flavors, and a comforting quality that comes from eating anything slightly mashed with rice.

Baingan Bharta

Yield: 4 Servings (or 2 if you’re hungry like we were)

2 large eggplant
1 tablespoon corn oil
1 teaspoon cumin
10 shallots, finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
10 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 1-inch piece fresh ginger, grated or finely chopped
1 12-ounce jar arrabiata sauce (or 3 fresh tomatoes + 1 chili, chopped)
½ teaspoon coriander powder
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ras-al-hanout
2 to 3 tablespoons sour cream or Greek yogurt (optional)
Salt and pepper

Char the eggplant on a grill, over a flame on your stovetop (I miss gas ovens) or in the broiler (about 45 minutes in my broiler). Let cool, peel, and mash the eggplant.

Heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the cumin, then the onions, and cook until soft. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomato sauce, coriander, turmeric, and ras-al-hanout and stir to combine. Add the mashed eggplant and cook for another minute to let the flavors meld. Remove from the and heat stir in sour cream, if using. Season with salt and pepper and serve with jasmine rice. (Note: left covered on the stove top this reheated well later in the evening).

6 thoughts on “Baingan Bharta: A Tale of Pantry Desperation and Innovation

  1. Daryl

    Your necessity was the mother of your invention. Sounds like it was a little heaven on earth, or just dessert in the desert!

      • Kim

        My feeling is that anytime you can utilize eggplant in cooking you just simply can’t go wrong. The recipe you came up with sounds like a Middle Eastern “comfort food” – that is, wonderful! Keep experimenting like this and keep us posted! Kim

  2. Radhika

    Katherine, very interesting to see some of Indian dishes on your menu. And glad to learn something new today ras-al-hanout!

    BTW, I seldom use garam masala in my version of the Baingan Bharta. I feel it smothers the smoked eggplant flavors. So, I stick to red chilli powder/ground cayene pepper and some ground cumin and generous amount of fresh coriander.

    • Katherine

      I love Indian food and do try to make it once in a while. I studied abroad in India in college and am always craving those flavors.

      I’ll have to try your method next time – I almost always have an eggplant on hand! That makes sense about the garam masala. And I love generous amounts of fresh coriander in almost anything 🙂

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