Because Indian Food Is Supposed to Be Ugly: Sweet and Sour Eggplant

Maybe if I’d had some more fresh coriander for garnish this wouldn’t have looked so gross?

I wouldn’t have cared if it had been delicious, and as much as it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t great. I even bought the right kind of eggplants for once; the long, lighter purple, skinny Asian ones. I even used chickpea flour, fresh ginger, and freshly ground coriander. I only skimped a very little on the oil too.

But the stars aligned against me I suppose, because this was just lacklustre.


4 Asian eggplants or 8 very small Indian ones (the Indian ones are a much better idea if you can find them

2 tbsp chickpea flour (or grind up some dried chickpeas)

1 tsp fresh grated ginger

1/2 tsp cayenne

1 1/2 tbsp ground coriander!!!

1 tsp ground cumin


3 tbsp freshly chopped cilantro

2 tbsp oil

2 tsp sugar

2 tsp lemon juice

What you’re supposed to do is take your 1 1/4 pounds of eggplants (about 4) and cut them in quarters lengthwise, stopping just before the stem. Then you soak them in a bowl of water for 30 minutes. This is a bit fishy because normally you’d salt eggplants to dry them out and remove the bitterness and here you’re soaking them. It certainly doesn’t add flavour or texture, and you’ll just have to boil out the water later anyway.

Then you put the chickpea flour in a small cast-iron frying pan (or grind up some dried chickpeas). I actually have one of those now – a frying pan (so what?). Cast-iron, I mean. You stir the flour (no oil or water) until it turns just a shade darker, but I don’t have any light in my kitchen right now since the bulbs burned out and I had to kind of guess on when “a shade darker” came about. I figured it would be aromatic. No such luck. Maybe the shop I bought it from in Pointe Ste-Charles had had it sitting around a bit too long? Hmm…No, it was probably just my own fault somehow.

When the flour gets darker you’re supposed to take it out and combine it in a bowl with the ginger, cayenne, coriander, cumin, salt, fresh cilantro, and some water. Yes, MORE water, but just a quarter cup. Again, I don’t know how this is supposed to help the spices. Normally you toast whole spices before adding them to a sauce, to make them stronger in flavour. Everything here just seems to make the dish weaker. Weak Indian food is not what I signed on for. If I wanted that I’d order Indian take-out and resign myself to obesity.

Okay, now you take the eggplants from their soaking water and dry them off. Rub them with the spice paste (on the cut surfaces only) and then brown the outside skins of the eggplants in hot oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Problem number 1 is you need a very large frying pan if you actually want all those eggplants to brown at once. You could do batches but that seems ridiculous. A better idea would be to broil the skins on a baking sheet. That way there’s no oil and all the eggplants get fairly evenly browned at once. Then you take the eggplants and put them back into the frying pan, sprinkle with salt and add (another!) 1/4 cup of water. All that water means there has to be enough flavour in the spices to season this whole dish. A way to cheat would be to use vegetable stock, but that’s very un-Indian.

Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook for 25 minutes, says Madhur Jaffrey. Then you pour over the combined lemon juice and sugar at the end. You’re not supposed to turn the eggplants once during all this until the very end, but that also means they’re not going to cook evenly. You can boil off excess liquid, but overcooking the eggplants also makes them mushy. To make them fit in the frying pan you may need to cut them from their stems, adding to mushiness and the impossibility of not turning them over and keeping the paste-filled cut sides facing in.

So all in all it was a very disappointing eggplant experience, which I hate. Top it off with an ugly presentation and the recipe gets a big thumbs down. Eating leftover eggplant gloop for the next few days was fine, however, because I knew it was at least kind of healthy, and my Indian pickle can make anything better.


  1. says

    It does kind of sound like you were served up a bit recipe, but I’ve never read Madhur Jaffrey, so maybe she’s infallible in Indian cuisine. What do I know? I had a hunch that maybe the soaking of eggplant wasn’t necessarily for culinary benefit but, if the recipe was quite old, was maybe to drown out any bugs that may have entered them in the garden.

    Turns out there’s quite a few pages about soaking (in milk, in salted water, in acidulated water, in its own juices, etc.) to either preserve its color or improve its texture. Brining an eggplant actually seems kind of novel to me since they are quite like sponges. In that case, it’d be like braising a roast instead of frying an eggplant afterward, though the “steeping” of spices instead of “blooming” them in oil, or even toasting them first, seems highly questionable.

    I can’t help but think that frying the eggplants would give at least slightly different results than broiling them though, especially in the mushiness department. Removing the oil and switching from direct to indirect heat is a pretty big substitute. It just seems like, at the very least, that they’d hold together better.

  2. admin says

    Madhur Jaffrey is kind of the reigning queen of Indian cookbooks right now. For the most part she is, to me, infallible, which is why this recipe was such a mis-step and I tend to think it’s my mistake. This is, however, her newest cookbook and I haven’t worked my way through it yet.

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