When I look back to my childhood, it seems to me that we had so much more fun growing up with the simple pleasures in life. Those were the days before the television, computers and electronic took over our lives and the radio was what reigned supreme. We spent a lot of time outdoors playing all sorts of games, many of which we made up as we went along. Even though I spent a large part of my childhood outside India, we used to spend the two months of our summer vacation in India visiting our immediate family, once every two years.
I have a lot of good memories from then and one particular one was of the post dinner story telling sessions with Thatha, my maternal grandfather. Dinner used be done by about 7:30 in the evening, and a bunch of the neighbourhood kids who were my friends, my cousins and I would climb the wooden stairs to the veranda upstairs where my grandfather would spend a couple of hours sitting in his easy chair (a sort of planter’s chair with retractable arms) before turning in for the night.
In those days, we kids got our first introduction to stories from the epics like the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana, Indian folk tales from the Panchatantra, Jataka tales, etc. My grandfather was a good story teller and we kids used to listen to him in pin drop silence as he wove his magic, only to clamour for more when he would stop the story at that point where we could not quite contain our eagerness to know what happened next. He would extract promises of good behaviour from us and promise us rewards for that in the form of the next instalment on the following night.
It is another matter that when I used to read out these stories to my then toddler, she would ask the most logical questions, most of which I had no plausible answers for. How many folk tales do you know that are based on logic?
Some of my Thatha’s stories were about Tenali Raman who was known to be a scholar and a very clever man. Tenali Raman was a court jester (and later minister) and poet in the court of the Vijaynagara king Krishnadeva Rai (early 1500s) and the stories about his cleverness and wit are legendary. Of the many stories told about him, there was one involving an eggplant or brinjal as we know this vegetable in India.
As this story goes, King Krishnadeva Rai had some eggplant plants of excellent quality growing in his private garden and no one was allowed to even look at them, let alone eat the fruit. One day, he invited his courtiers to a feast where a dish cooked with this special eggplant was served. Tenali Raman liked it so much that he couldn’t stop describing it to his wife when he got home.
That tempted his wife and she wanted a taste of this special vegetable at any cost. Tenali Raman knew that being caught stealing even one eggplant from the King’s garden could mean a death sentence, but he couldn’t refuse his wife. So one night, without anyone’s knowledge, he managed to steal a couple of eggplant which his wife cooked and fell in love with.
Now she wanted their six year old son to also share the experience! Tenali Raman was now in a fix. He couldn’t steal again without being discovered, and even if he did, a six year old couldn’t be trusted to keep a secret.
So after much thought, Tenali Raman went out and managed to steal a couple of eggplants/ brinjal, once again, from the King’s garden without anyone discovering him. His wife cooked it and their son also got to enjoy the vegetable for dinner.
Later at night, Tenali Raman took a bucketful of water and went up to the roof where his son was sleeping. He poured the water on the sleeping child and then picked him up and took him inside telling him it was raining outside. He then changed the boy into dry clothes and put him to bed.
The next day, the theft was discovered because the royal gardener had started counting the number of eggplants (fruit and flower) and found some of the eggplants missing. The King declared a huge prize for whoever caught the thief. One of the King’s ministers suspected that only someone as clever as Tenali Raman could manage a theft of this sort.
Both the King and his minister knew that they would not be able to trick Tenali Raman into confessing without proof so they decided to question his son. The boy was brought to court and asked what he had eaten the previous night. The boy replied, “I had eggplant and it was the tastiest I have eaten!”
The minister turned to Tenali Raman and asked him to confess to the theft since his son had disclosed the truth. Tenali Raman however refused, asking how they could go by a six year old boy’s statement. He explained that his son was prone to fanciful dreams at night, had a tendency to make up stories and probably dreamt that he ate eggplant for dinner. He then asked the King to ask the boy if he thought it had rained the previous night.
So the boy was asked the question and he promptly replied saying that it had rained the previous night and that he had got drenched and had to change into dry clothes. Since everyone knew it rarely rained in summer and it had definitely not rained in Vijayanagar the previous night, the King and his minister had no choice but to let the boy go and apologise to Tenali Raman for suspecting him of the eggplant theft!
I never heard this Tenali Raman tale in my childhood, and if I had, I might have been persuaded to develop a liking for the vegetable. The truth is that I never really liked eggplant as a child and am willing to eat it as an adult only if I cook it because then I can do so to my taste. Otherwise it has to be cooked by someone else whom I know does it well.
I like eggplant if it is cooked in the South Indian manner of a “Mezhukkupuratti “ which is a stir-fry with a little oil and just a couple of spices, so long as it doesn’t get mushy. I also like the spice stuffed and pan-fried eggplant dish of “Bhaghara Baingan” and the Italian Caponata. I am also partial to any dish that features char-grilled or roasted and mashed eggplant.
One of the last mentioned ways of cooking eggplant is the North Indian Baingan Bharta. “Baingan” is the Hindi word for eggplant and “Bharta” (pronounced BHURR-taah) refers to dishes where the main ingredient in it, a vegetable, is roughly mashed. There are several versions, with spice variations, depending on which part of North India cooks this dish and this one below is my approximation of what a former neighbour of ours used to cook.
For Baingan Bharta, the eggplant is smeared or brushed with a little oil and roasted (or char-grilled) over an open flame until all the skin becomes dark and wrinkled. Once cool, the skin is peeled off and the eggplant is mashed. Any dish cooked with this mashed eggplant has a characteristically smoky flavour which changes slightly depending on how it is cooked and with what spices.
I am not very familiar with the types and names of the various varieties of eggplant and we get many kinds here in India, depending on the time of the year. They come
in all shapes sizes and a few colours too – long, thin, green or purple; small, oval and deep purple; small, round and light green or striated and purple; medium, egg shaped, striated and white and purple; round, green and white Thai eggplant; huge, round, a little squat and purple; very large, longish and deep purple, almost black. These are just some of them.
The kind of eggplant to use for Baingan Bharta is the large, deep purple smooth skinned variety (slightly elongated or round) that has little or no seeds. The eggplant with seeds leaves a very unpleasant feel in the mouth and spoils the otherwise creamy texture of this Bharta.
I had never seen green peas in Baingan Bharta, until I first tasted the version cooked by my former neighbour. I happen to like green peas very much, and in India you can find the eggplant we use for this preparation in season at the same time green peas are, and I feel they’re both very compatible in terms of flavour in this dish. If you don’t like them, feel free to leave them out, and you will still have a great eggplant dish.