Back when I had a full-time job, I spent half a year in Calcutta. I moved there in the peak of the sweltering summer and stayed on through the monsoons. Most of my time there was spent alternating between working and stuffing my face with all the fantastic food. Every corner you turn, there’s always something – the tantalizing aroma of jhal-muri or the crunch of a puchka – that draws you and the next thing you know, you’re buying yourself some and digging in! I could fill pages telling you all about Calcutta’s best-kept secrets but that’s a story for another time!
I was also very, very lucky to have a sweet caretaker who took it upon himself to make sure I was (very) well-fed. Besides all the excellent street food, his meals were always something I looked forward to and he never disappointed! One of my favourites from his kitchen was begun bhaja or a Bengali-style fried eggplant. After I told him how much I loved it, he would always make sure to fry up a few slices and serve them sizzling from the wok with my dal-chawal or roti. Oh, the memory of them glistening with mustard oil and so soft, just falling apart!
I never did ask him for the recipe but both Hubs and I love to eat eggplant this way (the only way, in fact), so I tried to recreate his begun bhaja in my kitchen – and I can’t quite believe how well it turned out! It’s a staple at our home when we want something easy and comforting.
Begin by slicing up a fat eggplant. I like to use the round ones and not the oblong kind, but it’s entirely upto you. Try to find one with as little seeds as possible though. (If an eggplant looks big and weighs less than you thought it would, it probably has lesser seeds!)
Make the spice rub by mixing together all the masalas and a bit of mustard oil. The mustard oil is what gives the begun bhaja its distinctive, pungent taste so make sure you don’t substitute it! I love, love the unique taste and fragrance of mustard oil and it’s something Bengalis use extensively in their cooking!
Smear on the spice rub on both sides of all the slices. Use your hands to really get the spices in! I won’t deny that it’s going to get a bit messy, but do it anyway – it’s the best way!
Let them marinate for about ten minutes. They’ll sweat a little bit but that’s okay.
Ideally, you should deep-fry the eggplant and crisp them up to perfection but with my health-blah-di-blah, I’ve taken to pan-frying them and can I tell you the truth? I love these SO much more than the deep-fried ones! They’re lovely and tender and just melt in your mouth. A revelation! So here’s what you do – heat up a skillet with a drizzle or two of mustard oil, lay the all the slices on it in a single layer and drizzle a bit more oil around them.
Once the skin starts to change colour, flip them over and allow the other side to cook. Help them along by gently pressing down with a spatula. Flip them once more and amp up the heat so the eggplant can char slightly – this will give the bhaja a beautiful, smoky flavour that is just out of this world!
Surprise, surprise! Flip them yet again and now let the other side char. Damn, look at the colour on these babies! Once all the slices are done, pile them all up on a plate and dig in! These are a match made in heaven with khichdi, dal-chawal or phulkas. YUMMMM!
Prep Time: 15 mins | Cook Time: 15 mins | Serves 1
1 large round eggplant (~200g)
1 tbsp mustard oil + more to drizzle while cooking
a pinch turmeric powder (haldi)
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp roasted cumin powder (bhuna jeera powder)
½ tbsp coriander powder (dhaniya powder)
Salt, to taste
- Wash the eggplant and pat it completely dry. Slice it up into rounds approx. 1 cm thick and set aside. You should have 6-8 slices.
- Mix together all the other ingredients to make a spice rub (do the dry ones first and finally add 1 tbsp mustard oil)
- Rub the spice mixture on both sides of the eggplant slices and let sit for at least 10 minutes.
- While they’re marinating, drizzle some mustard oil on a skillet and heat it up on medium-high
- Test the skillet by laying an eggplant slice on it – if the oil starts to sizzle, it’s ready. Lay the rest of the slices on the skillet so that they don’t overlap. Drizzle some more mustard oil around the slices and let them cook till you start to see the skin changing colour, around 2-3 minutes. Careful not to let the spices burn.
- Flip the slices (the spices on the cooked surface shouldn’t look or smell raw right now) and allow the other side to cook for 2 minutes or so. Press gently with a spatula for even cooking.
- Flip them again, turn up the heat to high and cook till the surfaces start to get slightly charred.
- Flip them one last time; let the other side char to your liking as well. Once done, transfer them onto a plate and serve hot!
ADAPTATIONS & HACKS
- Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the finished bhaja for a slightly acidic kick. You could also add ½ tsp of dried mango powder (amchur) to the spice rub for a slight tang!
- If you want to go the traditional route and deep-fry these, make sure to cut the eggplant in thicker slices, around 1½ cm.
- If you’re not a fan of mustard oil, feel free to use regular cooking oil but I must warn you that there will be a significant loss of flavour.
- My recipe is for charred but soft begun bhaja – if you’re someone who wants a crisp crust, coat the eggplant slices in rice flour post-marinating and deep fry them. Make sure to dust off excess flour or you’ll end up with oily, soggy bhaja!