Growing up I always heard my khaloo (uncle on mother’s side) refer to baigun as bay guun (literally meaning that eggplant is not praiseworthy), but I have just the opposite opinion!
A delicious, spongy delight that can be cooked in a variety of ways and is always great on the palate; eggplant fritters (pakora), alloo baigan, baigan ka bhurta, baigan kay paratha, baigan ka achar, badam jaan and the king of all; the Hyderabadi bhagaray baigan.
The importance of the brinjal cannot be insisted upon enough in sub continental cuisine, and in the state of Hyderabad, the purple vegetable has an almost spiritual significance, maybe as esteemed as in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines.
Hence the following quote from William Dalrymple’s White Mughuls, a fantastic rendition of times in 18th century Hyderabad aptly relays the significance of the purple vegetable in Hyderabad, Deccan.
A flourishing vegetable garden was another persistent goal of James’s: of one friend in Calcutta he asked for seeds of peas, French beans, lettuce, endive and celery, `to which may be added a little choice cabbage and cauliflower seed’. In return for these, all he could offer were seeds of aubergines, which appears to have been very much the Hyderabadi vegetable of choice in the late eighteenth century.
My research has led me to understand that the cuisine of Hyderabad has a definite lean to southern cooking. Their creative methods of cooking vegetables, baisan (gram flour), coconut milk, imli (tamarind) and peanuts amongst others, blends into a flavour that is uniquely and deliciously Hyderabadi.
Chitrita Banerjee, a food writer talks about the bhagaray baigan in her book, Eating India,
It is impossible to overstate its significance in sub continental food, given its long availability as an indigenous vegetable. Every regional cuisine has developed its array of eggplant recipes, but in terms of richness and delicacy of preparation, Hyderabad is the winner every time.
Baghare baigan is almost as famous as Hyderabad’s biryani, and has titillated the palates of both the nizams and commoners. And it is not just bias that makes me say that it outdoes the Turkish imam bayaldi (literally meaning the imam fainted – a stuffed eggplant dish) in its potential to make the consumer faint with pleasure.
The history of bhagaray baigan itself is vague. However, a wider history of the region suggests that the Hyderabadi cuisine as we know it today, evolved to be so in the 17th century. The Mughul Emperor Aurangzed marched to Deccan and lay siege to the Golkanda Fort in hopes of conquering the region.
The Deccanis resisted the Mughul ruler for eight long months, and as the victorious Mughul Army and its cooks sat waiting, the besieged cooks inside the fort and their counterparts outside provided the gestation period for the modern day Hyderabadi unique. Banerji says,
For, out of sheer desperation, the Mogul army cooks foraged in the land around the castle and learned to cook the local herds and vegetables in the meals they cooked for the soldiers.
The eggplant, also known as brinjal and aubergine, was first stumbled upon four thousand years ago in the region we now know as Pakistan and India.
Most believe this purple delight to be a vegetable, but botanists consider it to be a fruit; a distant cousin to the bell pepper, tomato and potato. In the sub continental and Mediterranean cultures, the eggplant is considered to have a cooling effect upon consumption, and the ancient Chinese culture also refers to the eggplant as a yin vegetable; one that is water-based and brings a less dense, cold and damp energy with it.
When it came time for me to make the delicious bhagaray baigan, I turned to my very Hyderabadi friend Eram Rabbani Ashraf, who in turn got the recipe from her relative hailing from Hyderabad Deccan. Samina Bham’s recipe is authentic, quick and deliciously Hyderabadi.
I enjoyed the bhagaray baigan with a side of hot naan, but my daughter seemed to like it with boiled rice.
Here it is, from my kitchen to yours.
6 small eggplants
2 tsp white sesame seeds
2 tbsp grated coconut
2 tbsp peanuts
1 medium sized onion, chopped
3 by 2 inch block of tamarind soaked in 1 ½ cup hot water
Red chillie powder to taste
Salt to taste
½ to 1 tsp cumin powder
¼ tsp turmeric
1 tbsp grated ginger
1 tbsp chopped garlic
Separately roast sesame seeds, coconut and peanuts, then grate and set aside.
Take a ¼ to ½ cup of oil and fry eggplants whole with stems, maintaining the shape until half tender; the set aside.
In the same oil, fry chopped onions until golden brown, add ginger and garlic and fry for about one minute.
Pour grated, dry ingredients and masala and fry for a few minutes, add tamarind water and cook for a few minutes; add eggplants to the masala. Cover and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until it is tender and the oil separates, garnish with chopped cilantro and serve.
--Photos by Fawad Ahmed