Thursday, July 26, 2007

Baingan bharta

Eggplant in any form, particularly prepared as bharta, is something most children loathe. I loathed it. My brother (who will eat anything) loathed it. Even my school bloomer pal Priya (who ate cabbage) loathed it. There was absolutely no question of trading it when it turned up like a nasty surprise in my lunchbox. Eat it I must and eat it I did but only because I worried about the questions the not-empty dabba would raise when I returned home.
I’m not sure if it was the smooth, soft texture, the brown colour, the strange seeds within it, or the unusual taste, but I think they all combined to make a singularly unappealing presentation to anyone under the age of… oh I don’t know….75? To make matters worse, my father would joke about its name “Bay-goon” (which means ‘totally and absolutely lacking value’ in Hindi) and he’d claim it had no nutritional value whatsoever.

I know that following such an introduction with a recipe for bharta may seem slightly foolish. But I include it because my feelings toward this dish, and eggplant in general, have undergone a complete transformation. Our relationship has moved well beyond this youthful hatred to a newfound love and respect. I can’t pinpoint the date, but somewhere beyond school and maybe even college, bharta began to look extremely tempting. Gone were the nitpicky observations about its plain-Jane appearance and strange consistency. I couldn’t get enough of it! I even started eating it with rotis, the way my family does, instead of my favourite rice.

Now the smokiness of the roasted eggplant, the spiciness of the garnish and the fresh taste of the green peas make it one of my favourite ghar-ka-khana dishes. And although I hear my Dad’s voice chanting Bay-goon whenever I look at an eggplant, I smile and persevere in buying and cooking it because it has a flavour that I now love and will always associate with home.

Here's how it's done (or so I've been told):

This recipe for a simple, Punjabi-style Baingan Bharta was sent to me by Darshan-aunty, who is my sister-in-law’s mother. Unlike most aunties who simply inquire about my cooking skills and the ability to feed my husband, Darshan-aunty, in the action-oriented way that she approaches many things in life, kindly sent me the recipe. This is a simple and effective recipe and can be modified easily. It turns out exactly the way I like it and can be prepared within the same hour that you’re cooking a couple of other items, like rice and dal.

Baingan Bharta:
(45min – beware my estimates for everything are not to be taken literally – but that is roughly how long it takes me, while cooking other items)

1 large eggplant
green peas (frozen ones are what I usually use)
1 onion
1-2 tomatoes (if you prefer, use 1 can of chopped tomatoes, or even omit them)
Cilantro (fresh leaves and dried powder both)
Seasonings to taste (salt, pepper, optional - red chili powder)
Green chilies (optional)

1. Cut the end of the eggplant, slice it lengthwise and place face down in a roasting pan. Roast at 350F for 20min (15-30 min- approx until the skin starts to blacken). (In India this is usually done over an open flame, but I’m too timid to venture there.)
2. While eggplants roasts, chop the onion and tomatoes (dice)
3. Heat some oil in a wok or pan, fry onions first until rosy
4. Then add tomatoes and cook the mixture until eggplant is ready (anywhere from 5-20 min works)

5. Add seasoning, green chilies, and cilantro (both) to onion-tomato mix – lower heat
6. Once eggplant skin has blackened a bit, remove from roasting pan – let it cool to room temp
7. Scoop out the flesh with a spoon and add it to the pan with onion-tomato mix
8. Cook until the flesh softens and you can break it up in the pan with a wooden spoon and mix it into the onion-tomato mix.
9. Once it’s all mixed, it’s ready – you can add a squirt of lime or lemon and some fresh cilantro to garnish before serving. Yum!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Why Bloomers and Buns!?

Many of my closest friends and I attended the same school in India from the age of 4 to 15. Every single school day, year after year, from kindergarten to high school, I spent all day with the same girls. This level of continuity is astounding to many people (including my adult self), but we didn’t think much of it at the time. In fact, we didn’t stop to consider most things in our daily routine, same as most children everywhere.

As we got older (beyond the 5th grade), the strangeness and hilarity of our school experience became more and more apparent.

Here’s one example:
Our school was run by Jesuit nuns, but the student body was no more than 10% Christian. This led to such absurdities as mandatory praying for all students (Christian, yes, but also the Hindu, Muslim, atheist and Parsi students who made up our mixed classrooms). We recited the “Our Father” prayer every school day (not only in the morning, but also in the evening, just in case He hadn’t heard us all belting it out the first time).

Another classic requirement was that all students were clad in bloomers. Yep, bloomers. I know I need a photograph of these underthings because many people associate them with an extinct Victorian tradition, but believe me, they are thriving in convent schools in India.

So this brings me to…Bloomers and Buns ...NUNS!

I know this is a somewhat cryptic title, especially for a blog which is, for the most part, about home-cooked Indian food. Here I must acknowledge the contribution of my Brit cousins who introduced me (a bit late in the day) to the wonderful world of cockney rhyming slang.

So..bloomers, buns, nuns: all fantastic reminders of my school days which cover the two main subjects of the blog, home-cooked meals in a lunch box (dabba) we had at school, and memories of our crazy school days.

There are probably millions of women educated in India who had some variation of this strange and wonderful school experience.
Feel free to get in touch, share a recipe or story, correct me if you remember it differently, and enjoy!

Why the blog?

I started this blog to record recipes from my childhood – mostly home-cooked Punjabi food delivered to school in a 3-tier steel lunchbox. Our dabba-wala would bring our lunches from each of our homes on his bicycle and then take the empty boxes back every afternoon. An amazing luxury, but schools didn’t provide lunch, most households had either a parent or cook who stayed home, and it was considered healthier and cheaper to send children home-cooked lunches.

As an adult now living in the U.S., I cook several times a week, and started collecting recipes from family and friends (it’s rarely a convenient time to call India while in the midst of a dinner disaster here in Boston!).

I decided to start a blog to share these recipes with people who enjoy home-cooked Indian food. My memories of these school lunchboxes are mostly of food I’d find in my own, but we routinely traded lunch items, and some of these recipes have been contributed by my dear friends from school. Most of them are easy (if I can make them, so can you!), and not all of them are Indian (my French husband and life in Boston have greatly influenced what I eat), and I hope my photos will improve with time.