Last week at work, I spent at least half of a 30-minute meeting peppering an Indian colleague about why my curries don’t taste “authentic.” I told her I was starting to think that my chosen guides to Indian cooking, Julie Sahni and Madhur Jaffrey, were just like the Jewish grandmothers of my youth, who mysteriously “forgot” one or two ingredients when sharing a family recipe. I wondered, were they adding an extra half-cup of ghee or cream to every recipe? Was there yet another important Indian spice — not hing or kala namak, because I have both of those — that they were quietly adding to every dish? Lately, it’s started to seem that authentic Indian food, the stuff of Langley Park and Fairfax and my friends’ mothers’ kitchens, requires a secret handshake, a lifetime of understanding, or something else that I just don’t have. My curries taste good, but sometimes they recall hippie sustenance more than Saravana Palace.
But, until some merciful expert comes to my rescue, I’m going to keep chipping away. The good news is that, with a few dozen experiments under my belt, I’m starting to get the rhythm of curry: making the tarka, or spiced ghee; sautÃ©ing the aromatics and adding the tomatoes to build a gravy; cooking the legumes just right; adjusting the heat; and so on.
I wouldn’t say I’m ready to take on curry without a recipe, but I’m definitely at the point where I can look at a few templates and find my way. This eggplant-pea curry came out of such an experiment. I love baingan bartha, but coaxing all that smoke out of the eggplant takes more time than I had. I also love a good aloo muttar (peas and potatoes), but I had a couple eggplants that needed immediate attention. That’s how I settled on a curry of eggplants and peas, cooked in a style that melded baingan bartha and aloo muttar. I broiled the eggplant, which softens it quickly and infuses it with mild smoke; I used frozen peas, and I’d use them even at the height of spring (which is coming!!) because guys? Frozen peas are always better. Let the farmers come after me.
The rest is pretty straightforward, and I’m really, really happy with how this one turned out. I’d say it’s almost as easy as my very weeknight-friendly mushroom-pea curry from back when, and I’ll admit that I like this one even more. Sorry, belatedly, if you’re not a fan of Indian food. I’m clearly on a kick. For the rest of you? You’re welcome. Let’s have curry night together sometime.
Eggplant Pea Curry
Serves 4 as a component of a meal
1 large globe eggplant
2 tablespoons ghee or oil (preferably with a high smoke-point, like safflower or sunflower)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium red onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 serrano or red asian chiles, seeded and chopped
1-inch knob ginger, minced
1 teaspoon garam masala
1-1.5 cups diced or crushed tomatoes (either works)
2/3 cup water
1 teaspoon salt, to taste (less if tomatoes are salted)
8 oz. frozen peas
1/4 cup chopped cilantro, for garnish
Cook the eggplant: Preheat the broiler, or turn your oven to its hottest setting. If using a broiler, place a rack in the highest position in your oven.
Pierce the eggplant all over its surface with a fork, place on an ungreased baking sheet. Broil or roast for 25-30 minutes, rotating every 5-7 minutes, until eggplant is blackened in spots and very soft. (Eggplant likely won’t blacken if not using the broiler, but no matter.)
Remove the eggplant from the oven and immediately transfer to a heatsafe bowl. Cover in plastic wrap, and set aside to steam while it cools, at least 15 minutes.
Prepare the curry: Heat the ghee or oil over medium-high heat in a deep sautÃ© pan and add add cumin seeds. They will sizzle. When seeds smell fragrant, add the onion, garlic, chilies, and ginger. Stir a few times, then cook about 8 minutes, until very fragrant and starting to soften. Add garam masala, tomatoes, water, and some salt to taste. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook 10 minutes, until gravy has come together and reduced slightly.
While the gravy cooks, remove plastic wrap from eggplant, slit the skin with a knife, and scrape the flesh out of the eggplant shell using a fork. You want to break it up a bit, but no need for it to be perfectly pureed. Some chunks are nice.
Uncover gravy and add eggplant. Stir carefully to incorporate, and cook 5 minutes more. Then add peas, stir to incorporate, and cook 2 minutes, just until warmed through. Taste and adjust salt content.
Serve over rice, with cilantro, yogurt or raita, and chutney if desired.
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I know exactly how you feel about the “authentic” flavor. I also am a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook user and find that her recipes vary so much depending on intended audience (some books seem more advanced than others). But THE biggest difference I’ve seen (tasted) in my own Indian cooking is pretty simple really–ya gotta grind your spices fresh every time. Like, minutes before you make a dish. Or conversely, f not using ground spices, make sure the whole spices are fresh!
Fawn, I totally agree on needing to grind spices fresh. When I’m feeling un-lazy, I even make my own ginger-garlic paste from scratch. Those steps do make a difference.
I am eating the Khatti Dal as I write this. I LOVE it. Our family was here yesterday and everyone enjoyed all the Indian dishes I made, including the not yet 2 year old. I’m mostly using 660 Curries and have really loved everything. The Khatti dal may be one of my favorites. Tonight I made the your eggplant with peas curry. Indian food is so good, not real pretty but sooooo good. Thanks. Keep up the good work.
Lonnie, so glad you like the Khatti Dal. I also love 660 Curries; great book.