Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Salad Days

Among the many amazing legacies my mother in-law has left us are a small collection of notebooks she’d written over the years, notebooks filled with unique, varied, and scrumptious Indian recipes I’d often never tasted or even heard of till she introduced them to me. 

And as with most great cooks, nearly all her recipes came with a lovely, long-ago story, maybe about the person who taught her the dish or the esteemed dinner guest she prepared it for the first she had them over. Sounds mundane, but in her retelling, there was magic. As she compiled the recipes, I asked her to jot down some of these stories so I could tell my own kids when they start expressing their own creativity in the kitchen.

Somehow, one recipe is missing from these notebooks, but it’s the one I can’t forget since I make it so often. It’s a type of raita, or an Indian salad mixed with yogurt, and while my mother in-law certainly didn't invent this dish, she taught me how to make it.

Raita itself is a common dish, basically any combination of chopped raw vegetables (or even fruit) mixed with plain yogurt and  seasoned with salt, but there are literally endless variations of this concept. The most common vegetables used are tomatoes, cucumber, and onions, but I’ve seen versions with almost anything – pineapple, carrots, beets, apples, green chilies, raisins. Seasoned powdered spices, such as chaat masala or chili powder, can be sprinkled in with the salt. Sometimes, a blend of whole spices (cumin seeds, for instance) is fried separately and mixed in. Cilantro and/or mint may be chopped and added in or garnished over the top. Another version of raita that I enjoy includes corn and pomegranate kernels with a garnish of mint and a dash of salt, sugar, and coriander powder.

But the one I’m sharing this week, an eggplant raita, is my favorite. I seriously crave this dish nearly all year round, but most especially now, in the hot summer months, as a quick, cool accompaniment to almost any meal, especially kebabs, or as a dip. In Konkani, we call this dish “bujjee” (at least that’s the phonetic spelling), or "bajji," which is also the word we use for anything mashed, edible or otherwise.

Here's how you make it.

First, you’ll need the following (approximated quantities):

1 large eggplant
1–1.5 cups of yogurt (I also like to add in a couple spoons of sour cream)
1/3 cup finely chopped red onion
1.5 Tbsps grated ginger
a few pinches of finely chopped cilantro (optional and to be added at the very end)

for the seasoning:
1 Tbsp of oil
1 green chili, slit down the middle, seeds removed
3 pods of garlic, peeled and just slightly crushed to release the juices
combination of whole spices: 3/4 tsp black mustard seeds and ½ tsp of cumin seeds
10-12 curry leaves (optional, but if you want to try this, you’ll find it in the refrigerator section of any local Indian grocer)


Cut some slits into the eggplant then place it on a hot grill or in a preheated broiler for about 30-45 minutes. I use a baking dish with sides when I use the broiler because of all the oil that’s released. Keep turning the eggplant, every 15 minutes or so, until the eggplant starts to collapse. When it’s cool enough, scrape the flesh out of the skin, mash it in a bowl with the back of a fork, then combine ginger, onions, yogurt, and about a teaspoon of salt. (I mix in some of the released oils from the baking pan too.) You’re looking for the consistency of a medium-thick dip, so add additional yogurt or sour cream in case it’s too thick.

Separately, in a small sauce pan, heat the oil on medium heat. When the oil is good and hot, add first the mustard seeds – and as soon as it splutters (almost immediately), add the cumin seeds, green chili, garlic pods, and curry leaves. Stir for about 30 seconds  –  or just long enough to soften the pieces of garlic and chili and release the aromas of the whole spices  – then remove from heat.

Pour the contents of the sauce pan into the eggplant mixture and stir. If you’re using the chopped cilantro, mix it in or garnish just before serving. (Note, the curry leaves aren’t meant to be eaten, only to flavor the dish, so you can either remove them before serving or pull them out as you eat.)

If any of this sounds complicated or if you have trouble finding any of the seasonings easily, no worries. You can swap out most of these ingredients, omit what you don’t have, or skip the ginger and/or onions if you don’t care for them. The broiled eggplant, yogurt, and maybe the salt are the only must haves here, with any variation you can think of. 

That said, I dare you to make it my way and not eat the whole bowl before it hits the dinner table.


1 comment:

  1. Supriya, I will HAVE TO visit you and watch you make it!! Seriously. I can’t even imagine how I would grill an eggplant until it starts to collapse. And how to mash with the back of the fork! We'll trade recipes.