My Favourite Vegetarian Indian Dish: Baigan Bhartha (Eggplant)

I realize the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, which is kind of how I feel about my repeated efforts to make baigan bhartha. I feel somewhat justified in the fact that I keep trying different recipes, but does that make me only sort of crazy, or just stubbornly determined?

When I go to an Indian restaurant I want meat. Vegetarian seems like a waste. For all the oil they add, it’s just not as mind-blowing as it should be. Meat is where the real special-occasion flavour-fat splurge comes into play. Long-cooked cubes of meat dissolve in rich, oily, intoxicating stews. All the spices just make the rich flavours of the meat jump out in a way that lentils can only dream of. Don’t get me wrong, I love saag and I like daal, but I will always go with the lamb dish.

The only exception to my rule is baigan bhartha. When I see this smoky eggplant dish on the menu I get the same pang of desire that I get when I see lamb roganjosh (in a smell test I will forever go with the lamb…). In a restaurant the eggplant is cooked until mushy in a tandoor (sometimes) and then added to a lusciously oily mix of spices and often tomatoes. I have tried (mostly in vain) to recreate the restaurant experience at home. My failure has a whole lot to do with the fact that I refuse to use about 10 tablespoons of oil and a little to do with not owning a tandoor or even a real grill or charcoal BBQ. My latest attempt was pretty good, but it just didn’t get the smokiness of a tandoor. Next time maybe I will add some liquid smoke.

What I did use to guarantee that at least the dish wouldn’t be too acidic were San Marzano tomatoes. These are the gods of tomatoes. Italian Grandmothers weap over these tomatoes. Not regularly, mind you, but in the strange case where they didn’t can enough to make it through the winter and spring. I mean, they could buy the canned ones, which are amazing, but that might be embarrassing for them. I am not an Italian Grandmother. I am not easily embarrassed.

The thing about these tomatoes is that they come from one region in Italy where the tomatoes are naturally very sweet. So the acidity is very low and when you cook with them you don’t need to add any sugar. If you taste a tomato sauce and it tastes sweet the cook probably added sugar, and if you call them on it they will be embarrassed. He or she is probably not an Italian Grandmother either, but still fairly easily embarrassed.

This isn’t even an Italian recipe and here I am off on a tangent about a country’s grandmothers. Back to India.

(It’s a long trip)

Anyway, this bhartha recipe was not bad. I think I needed a higher eggplant to tomato ratio, since it turned out more like a bruschetta with eggplant or the world’s best ratatouille, or a really good pasta sauce or pizza sauce, rather than a very good bhartha. None of these alternatives are bad, however, and the leftovers were turned into all of the above – successfully. The only funny thing is that every time I had this dish I got thirsty, which makes me think I used too much salt. Since I checked the tomatoes and there was just about no sodium in the can (another plus of San Marzanos) it had to be from the bhartha recipe.

2 long, thin eggplants (I didn’t use the purple ones or the really huge standard ones, but a few smaller standard ones instead. I hoped this would minimize the natural bitterness of the vegetable. I also peeled them since a lot of the bitterness is in the skin)
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 large onion, diced
1 tbsp ginger, grated
1 can San Marzano tomatoes
3 long red chilies (the recipe called for long green chilies, but the red ones turn green after they’re red, so I figured it’d be okay…and I couldn’t wait that long. I had a bunch sitting in my kitchen and I was not about to go out and buy another bunch, as much as I am obsessed with heat)
1/2 tsp garam masala (home-made!!! Hurray!)
Red chili flakes (to taste. Probably 0 teaspoons for the weak of heart. About 1/2 a teaspoon for me…I know, ridiculous. It’s not even a matter of pride, as in “See how much heat I can take!” It really is that I am addicted and on my tongue it helps bring out the other flavours. I still taste everything else. My tolerance has gone up and I need more of the drug to get my fix. Really, it’s a relatively healthy addiction, mom)
Salt, to taste (I swear I only put in a pinch because salt is essential, but somehow it ended up too salty. Who knows?)
1 whole cup of cilantro leaves (really, less is fine since it’s just for garnish. I don’t even like adding it directly to the pan unless you’re going to eat all of it in one go. It shouldn’t be reheated. Much better when it’s fresh)

You’re supposed to grill the eggplant but I don’t really have a grill. I always roast it. The point is you want it cooked, and roasting is so easy. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise and then score them (mark ‘X’s in the flesh with a knife). Place them flesh-side up on a baking sheet and pop them in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until they’re soft (mushy is fine. They just shouldn’t be tough or rubbery. Pressing down on them with the back of a fork should cause the eggplant meat to break apart pretty easily. Just taste it and if it has to be really chewed, it’s not done). I kind of just stick them in as soon as I can in the getting-dinner-ready process and cross my fingers they’re soft by the time I need them. My success rate is okay. I’m working on it…

While the eggplant is roasting (or grilling. The grilling will make it more charred and give a quasi-tandoori smoky flavour) cut the onion and measure out all the spices. The ginger and garlic can go in the same bowl and the tomatoes, red chilies, and garam masala can go together in another. Everything else needs its own plate or dish.

This dish is best served with bread, not rice (the recipe actually suggests roti, naan, phulka, chapathi or paratha. So take your pick of Indian flat bread. I say Italian piadina works fine. Regular bread – like a country loaf, not Dempsters – will turn this into bruschetta), so get that all ready to go (if you’re toasting or heating, put it on a plate or set it in the toaster oven and don’t turn it on, etc). Basically do everything you can to waste time while the eggplant is cooking. Eat a salad, if the mood strikes.

When the eggplant is done take it out of the oven. Don’t scoop out the flesh now. It’s too hot. I have enough burned fingers for us both.

Now heat the oil in a large pan or skillet. Keep it to one area of the pan while it heats on medium-high. Then add the cumin seeds to the oil. This minimizes the amount of oil you need. Wait 5 seconds and then add the onions. The worst thing you can do is not cook the onions long enough, and sadly this is easy since you’re not using a lot of oil. Use 3 tbsp of oil if you absolutely love fried onions, but I’m telling you it’s a waste because in the end the onions won’t taste fried. They’ll just be swimming in tomato sauce and it’ll be a waste of the oil. So it’s your choice.

You have to stir the onions religiously or they’ll burn. If they start to stick add a tablespoon of water. Add more water a tablespoon at a time each time the onions start to stick.

When the onions are soft, not crunchy (up to 10 minutes), add the ginger and garlic and stir and cook for 3 minutes. Again, no burning allowed.
Now add the tomatoes, fresh chilies and garam masala. Add the red chili flakes if you want and taste first, and then add a little salt only if it needs it. Turn the heat to low and cook for 10 minutes. If the sauce is thick it might start to spit a little, so you can cover it if you want.

Finally, a chance to rip apart eggplants.

Scoop the flesh out of the eggplants and chop it roughly. Okay, it’s true, the eggplants could have been sitting in the oven cooking all this time you’ve been dealing with onions and the like, but then when you took them out just a moment ago they’d have been too hot to handle. So if you’re in a time bind, be prepared to use gloves or burn your fingers to get your eggplants properly cooked. Slimy chunks of eggplant are what you’re after. Unappealing now, maybe, but I swear, completely delicious.

Now add your delicious eggplant slime to the tomato mixture. Cook and stir for 5 minutes. Garnish with cilantro. Dream of an even better eggplant recipe next time, and how much you love bruschetta.


  1. (MissWatson) says

    It would be if I weren't lactose intolerant…the paneer is hard to replace. I also hate tofu, which would be the obvious, but inadequate, replacement. I can do the rest of the recipe (reduced almond milk in place of cream) but it's really not the same. What kind of masala powder is the recipe asking for? It looks really interesting with the poppy seeds and cardamom.

  2. (Anonymous) says

    That site generally requires some amount of improvisation and interpretation. So… here

    She's a bit better with providing complete recipes.

    Lactose intolerance sucks, my friend. I should know, I suffer, too, but I just can't say o to cubes of cheese.

    The sauce really is the best part of this dish, though, and you can put sauce on anything, really.

  3. (MissWatson) says

    Wow, that's a completely different recipe. Different spices, different texture from the grinding or not grinding of onions, and different ideal for the paneer – whether it browns or not. I kind of prefer the second link just because the paneer gets browned before the cream and sauce get added. It would have a nice, firm exterior instead of just being squishy. Both would be delicious, though, I'm sure. I think I would just add a probiotic ("raw") cheese to the final result and get an un-browned version of the paneer like the first recipe. Kind of like an Indian poutine where the curds heat up but aren't really melted into the sauce (except cheese curds aren't probiotic, and fresh cheese is one of the worst things for lactose-intolerance…). To get around the lactose-intolerant issue, you just have to make sure the cheese doesn't get heated to the point where bacteria are killed.

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