Baghara Baigan

(Aubergine Cooked in the Hyderabadi Style)

When there were still maharajas and princes in India, Hyderabad, in the south, was the seat of successive, semi-independent Nizams, reputed to be among the richest men in the world. The
Nizams, and the ruling aristocracy of Arab, Persian, and Central Asian ancestry, were Muslims but the people over whom they  ruled were Hindus. The cuisine of the affluent reflected these divergent influences. The use of coconut, tamarind, jaggery, and mustard seeds was typical of the vegetarian Hindus. These season- ings are incorporated into this superb, festive dish in which small and tender aubergines are partially quartered, stuffed with a hot, sour, sweet, and salty mixture and then cooked slowly. A final baghat, or addition of hot oil flavoured with spices, finishes off the dish - and also gives it its name. I use small, 3-4-in/8-10-cm, purple aubergines.

On those occasions when I have been able to get small, white aubergines, I have preferred to use them, as their skin tends to be softer and they cook in barely 15 minutes. If you have a garden and are planning for a future season, keep these white aubergines in mind. (When- ever I have been able to buy them it has been from Chinese grocery stores.) If you want to serve this dish cold, use oil instead of ghee for
the final garnish.

Wash the aubergines and wipe them. Do not remove any of the green portion (i.e., the stems and sepals). Quarter the aubergines lengthwise in such a way that the sections remain attached for at least 1/2in/1 1/2cm at the stem end. Rub 2tsp salt into all the cut sections and leave the aubergines, stems up, standing in a bowl for 45 minutes to an hour.

Meanwhile, heat a small cast-iron frying pan over a medium flame. Put in the sesame seeds, coconut, dried red pepper, coriander, and whole cumin seeds. Dry-roast, stirring constantly for 2 to 3 minutes, or until seasonings have turned a few shades darker and give out a delicious roasted aroma. Remove from heat and empty spices into a small bowl. When the spices have cooled a bit, put them into a coffee grinder reserved for spices. Grind and set aside.

Squeeze out as much moisture as possible from the aubergines and wipe them.

Heat the 8 tbs oil in a frying or sauté pan large enough to hold the aubergines in a single layer. Put in the finely chopped onions and garlic. Fry over a medium flame until reddish-brown at the edges. Take the frying pan off the heat and add the turmeric, the ground spices from the coffee grinder, the tamarind paste (put in 2 tbs first and add more later if you think you need it), the jaggery, and 1 tsp salt. Return to the fire, keeping the heat very low. Mix all the ingredients in the pan and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add just enough water to the spice mixture to make a thick but not dry paste (about 4 fl oz/1 dl). Keep stirring and cooking until jaggery has melted completely. This mixture will be the stuffing for the aubergines. Taste it for balance of sweet, sour, hot, and salty flavours. Make adjustments, if necessary. Turn off the heat.

Empty the stuffing into a small bowl. Spread a portion of the stuffing in between the cut sections of each aubergine and then lay the aubergines in a single layer in the same pan used earlier for cooking the stuffing.' Leftover stuffing may be sprinkled on top.

Add 6 fl oz/1 3/4 dl water to the frying pan and bring to a simmer. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, turn heat to low, and cook gently for 40 to 60 minutes or until aubergines are quite tender. (Very young aubergines may cook faster.) Using tongs to pick up the aubergines by their stem ends, turn them over at least 4 to 5 times during this cooking period. Stir the sauce by sliding a spatula under the aubergines and spooning some of the sauce over them. If they seem to be catching at the bottom, add 1 tbs of hot water. Replace the lid every time you have stirred or turned the aubergines.

When the aubergines are tender, heat the ghee in a small frying pan or a very small pot over a medium flame. When hot, put in the mustard seeds and the green chilli. When the mustard seeds begin to pop - this just takes a few seconds - pour the ghee and spices over the cooked aubergines.

To serve, lay the aubergines out in a single layer, all stems pointing in the same direction, on a warmed platter. Spoon some of the thick sauce over them but leave behind all the fat.

(serves 6)

Madhur Jaffrey