This is a classic Marathi or Maharashtrian recipe. As traditional as this is, every family has a twist on it, and will taste different from place to place. Some areas use more oil and heat, others use a lot more sugar. Any which way, this is a delicacy that ranks high among traditional food.
There are a few variations even within our family depending on the person making it, and I have come up with my own favourite over the years. The star here is the ‘kala’ or black masala that is generally eaten in parts of central India, and which is very much different from the goda masala otherwise common in Marathi households. The baby eggplants/brinjals/vangi themselves are the other main ingredient of course. I like the ones which are deep purple on the outside with very few seeds inside. The eggplants grown along the banks of the river Krishna are also very popular for this dish ( found in places like Sangli, Karad and Kolhapur).
The spice mix forms the secret ingredient here and is actually made up of many different things. A variation in the quanitity and variety of things used change the taste of this dish. I use a combination of nuts/seeds, spices and coconut. The detailed recipe is as follows -
10-12 baby eggplants
3 Tbsp peanuts
2 Tbsp sesame seeds
1 Tbsp dry coconut
2 Tbsp coriander or dhania seeds
1 Tbsp kala or goda masala
2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp turmeric
1-2 Tbsp gur/jaggery/brown sugar
salt to taste
2 Tbsp oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
1) Wash and clean the eggplants thoroughly. Remove the stems but cutting laterally at the base. Now make one vertical cut through the centre almost all the way down without actually cutting it into two pieces. You should go about 80% of the way down. Place a similar cut at right angles to the first cut.
Now you should have a clover type cut deep into the eggplant. There will be four quarters which are joint at the base. Handle the eggplant delicately from this point since we do not want the parts to separate.
2) Cut the remaining eggplants similarly and place in a tub of water. This is to prevent darkening by oxidation.
3) Dry roast the peanuts, sesame seeds, coconut and dhania seeds one by one and cool. Powder using a spice grinder and set aside.
4) Assemble all the spices in a bowl. Add the powdered mixture, masala, turmeric, cayenne, salt, jaggery or brown sugar and half the chopped onion. Mix this well. Work the jaggery into the mixture so that no lumps remain.
5) Now we start stuffing the eggplants. Remove the eggplants from the water and pat them to remove moisture. Now hold the eggplant in one hand, and place some of the spice mixture into the cut we have made in the eggplant. Eyeball the amount of spice you have and use it such that you have enough to stuff all the baingans.
6) Some mixture will fall into the plate as you stuff it, and that can be reused. All this will eventually become part of the sauce or gravy as the eggplants cook.
7) Heat oil in a heavy pan. Traditionally a kadai or deep stock pot called ‘patela’ would be used for this. Use a pot with a lid, as we need steam to cook this.
8) Heat the oil and give a tadka of mustard seeds and hing if desired. Or you can also directly add the chopped onion here. Lightly fry the onion until it becomes pink.
9) Place the eggplants along the bottom carefully so that most of them get a sear if possible. Lightly toss them for 2-3 minutes until all of them are coated with the oil. Add any remaining spice mixture to the pot.
10) Add some water, just enough to cover the eggplants and place a lid on it. Use a small to medium flame.
11) Keep storring occasionally to make sure there is enough liquid. The eggplants will soften and reduce in size as they cook. Most of the spice mix will dissolve in the sauce and thicken it.
12) Once the eggplants look to be cooked, remove the lid and add salt to taste if needed. Simmer very slowly now until oil separates. Since we are using peanuts, sesame etc., they will let off a lot of oil.
13) Add more water if needed to thin out the sauce. Traditionally the sauce is thick. Garnish with cilantro or dhania and serve hot.
This vegetable dish is generally served with hot rotis or bhakri, which is a thick roti made from jowar or bajra. The cuisine of Maharashtra is incomplete without ‘Bharli vangi’.