Baingan bartha (bharta?) is a dish I first had from Inder’s Kitchen. At least, I think it’s called baingan bartha, and Google vaguely corroborates that. Anyway, Inder’s is probably the best Indian food in Cambridge – their menu riffs on home cooking and regional authenticity. It’s not the parade of stumbling-out-of-the-pub curry house generics it’s so easy to associate with Indian food, and when they do put on a cliché/classic it tends to reflect a real respect for quality ingredients.
They’re also lovely people. And they’re lovely people who make a mean smoked aubergine mash.
I’ve been trying to replicate it for some time, with a variety of techniques, and just not nailed it. The simple explanation is that you really need a tandoor. I don’t have one, but I have managed to come up with a passable impersonation of Baingan bartha.
The perils of smoking
Baingan bartha is basically mashed hot-smoked aubergines. Chuck some spices and a cursory tomato at it, and you’re done. But in a domestic kitchen there’s only so much you can do to infuse those smoky flavours.
Trawling the internet turns up a few common methods:
- Barbecue / griddle
- Use a hot smoker
- The naked flame of your gas hob
- Just grill the fuckers
- Optional fusion-wank: use chipotles.
You’ve probably guessed, but I favour the last two. I’ve not tried hot-smoking, but I suspect it’d be the best trade-off. Barbecuing is a bit of a faff, and can tend to burnt rather than smoky. The same more or less applies to the naked flame option, though I have been known to play a blowtorch over the aubergines, just to make myself feel better about the whole thing.
The chipotles are outright cheating. But I love them.
- 2 large aubergines
- An onion
- A large fresh tomato (or a couple of small ones)
- Fresh coriander
- A chipotle (in adobo, for preference)
- 1tsp cumin seeds
- 1tsp mustard seeds
- 1 tsp tumeric
(This will probably serve two as a main)
Halve the aubergine and put it under a hot grill. Start with it flesh-side up for a few minutes until there’s a little browning, then turn it over. Grill the heck out of it. It’ll probably take about 10 minutes, maybe longer. Grill it, basically, until it starts to smell smoky, and the skin has hardened and blistered a bit. Take it out of the grill and let it cool a bit.
Update – I’ve since found that leaving them whole and grilling for insanely long works rather better. A long hot grilling, turning periodically, until the skins char and toughen. 30-40 minutes seems about right.
Meanwhile, dice the onion and fry it off gently. Let it colour and soften well, almost caramelising. Chop the tomato, garlic, ginger, and chilli.
Once the onion is good and soft, add the ginger and garlic. Let it fry off on a moderate heat without catching, then add the spices. The usual dictum is that they’re cooked through when the mustard seeds sizzle and pop. This seems to work. At this point, add the tomatoes, chilli, and a handful of shredded coriander. Stir well and reduce the heat while it cooks down a bit.
With a spoon, scrape the aubergine flesh out of the skins, getting as much as you can out. Some of the smoky flavour comes from the gooey darkened inner flesh close to the skin. You don’t want the skin itself, but don’t be shy of scraping out the dark sticky bits.
Chop or mash the flesh, and add it to the pan.
Let it all cook together for a minute, then add a little water and let it reduce again. This is basically to give it some extra simmering time and so take the acidic edge off the fresh tomatoes. It’s optional, I guess. With a sprinkle of coriander and some seasoning, it’s ready to serve.
I had this as a simple lunch with a paratha, but it would go nicely on the side of some simple spiced meat, or just with a fuckload of fried potatoes. It’s piquant and smoky and spicy, and I like to cook it with plenty of garlic coming through.
It’s nowhere as good as Inder’s, but it’s pretty tasty.