Uppu Venkaya - Coconut masala-stuffed aubergines curry

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Looking back on the past couple of years, I detect a thin red line connecting a few things I’ve been delving into: it’s been an exploration of my identity as an Indian person through different means. It’s a topic I’ve never really given much thought to in the past, probably because I grew up in India and didn’t give much thought to what being Indian or an Indian woman meant. This attitude continued in the years after I left home, moving first to London and then to Germany. It was simply such a integral part of who I was—am—that it never got much consideration. People would ask me all the time about India and my experiences growing up there, and those were my first attempts at looking at my culture, my experiences from the outside and attempting to explain what to me was so intrinsic. Friends were also often disappointed when they were invited to dinner and not served Indian food, which confused me: I personally didn't eat much of it myself—didn’t cook it very often and was already so disappointed by the food options in Frankfurt that I almost never ate at Indian restaurants. My annual visits home were when I got my share of the food and flavours I loved: both through my mother’s amazing cooking and the various street food haunts we frequented.

Over the years though, I’ve been drawn more and more to exploring and trying to represent the foods I love, partly as a reaction to the bland minimum that most Indian restaurants here offer. One of the defining moments of my past year culinary-wise was my discovery of the beautiful Five Morsels cookbook. As I’ve mentioned earlier, it caught my attention the instant I saw it because it was the first time the food I’d grown up with at home was being celebrated in this manner. And it’s given me the chance to start exploring that cuisine on my own, trying new techniques, feeling my way toward dishes that are so familiar in taste yet daunting in their execution. I’ve been discussing different techniques with my mother—how she prepares the same dish—and it’s been a wonderful experience, a sort of journey back to this new identity I’m embracing.

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This past Friday we had close friends to visit, some of whom I hadn’t seen in ages and I knew they’d love something Indian. So I pulled out the cookbook, came up with a menu and got cooking. The hours in the kitchen were totally worth it: they took one look at the table and immediately declared that the dishes all seemed completely new—and proceeded to go through everything, spice be damned! One of the dishes that finished first was an aubergine curry: plump little aubergines stuffed with a spicy mixture of coconut and other spices ground to a paste, then slow-cooked in a pan. The flavours are complex: a medley of tangy, sweet-ish, fiery and rich. This is a dish I love when my mother makes it, something I always thought was too complex for a beginner like me. But  Archana’s descriptions made it seem ok to tackle and I’m going to be making it regularly from now on.

Don’t be put off by the list of ingredients and the prep methods: it’s actually all quite methodical and the result is so wildly delicious that you’ll thank yourself for trying. Adjust the levels of chilli as you see fit, the amount I used (below) is already less than in the original recipe. You’ll find tamarind and all the other ingredients at any Indian grocery store or (Asian) supermarket. Serve this dish hot and pair with hot, steamed rice or some rotis.

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Uppu Vankaya - Coconut masala-stuffed aubergine curry
Adapted from Five Morsels of Love
Serves 4 - 6

500 gm green or purple eggplants (I used small, round purple eggplants)
1/2 teaspoon salt

Masala
25 gm/ 1 lime-sized ball of tamarind
1 tablespoon white poppy seeds
1 tablespoon urad daal (de-husked split black gram)
2 cloves
1 inch cinnamon stick
5 tablespoons shredded dried coconut
1/8 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon powdered jaggery
1 tablespoon coriander powder
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 medium onions, chopped
1 teaspoon red chilli powder
salt to taste

Tempering
2 tablespoons sunflower (or another neutral) oil
1 tablespoon ghee
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon urad daal (de-husked split black gram)
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
10 - 15 fresh curry leaves (use dried if you can’t get hold of fresh)

Chopped coriander leaves, to garnish

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Soak the tamarind in 120 ml/ 1/2 cup of hot water for 15 minutes. In a large non-reactive bowl, mix a litre of water with a half teaspoon of salt and set aside. Wash the aubergines and pat dry. Slice off the heads, then make one slit each horizontally and vertically in the form of a cross, from top to bottom, taking care to stop about a half centimetre from the end. Place the aubergines in the salted water—this keeps them from discolouring due to oxidation.

Mash the tamarind by hand and mix it with the water to create a thick paste. Press the liquid through a sieve into a bowl, extracting as much liquid as possible. Alternatively use your fingers to see any pulp and seeds out of the mixture. Discard the pulp and seeds and set aside.

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Dry roast the poppy seeds, urad daal, cloves, cinnamon and coconut in a small pan over medium heat until fragrant, about 3 - 4 minutes. Stir occasionally, making sure that nothing burns. Transfer to a blender and once completely cool, grind to a fine powder. Add the tamarind and the remaining masala ingredients and blend together to a paste. Stuff the aubergines generously, reserving any leftover masala.

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In a large, deep non-stick pan or wok, heat the oil and ghee over a high flame. Once hot, add the mustard seeds and once they splutter, follow up with the urad daal, cumin seeds, curry leaves, stuffed aubergines and any remaining masala. Fry for 3 - 4 minutes, turning the aubergines very gently. Lower the heat, add 1/4 cup water to the pan and cover with a lid. Cook for about 20 - 25 minutes or until the aubergines have softened, turning them over gently once or twice. Check for salt and add some more if necessary. Once the aubergines are cooked through, transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with the chopped coriander. Serve hot with basmati rice or rotis.

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Images and text: Vatsala Murthy

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