Brinjal, Glorious Brinjal!
AROUND THREE evenings a week – and often more – we make a baingan bharta for dinner in my home. It is not that difficult a dish to master, baingan is relatively easy to find in the market, and it may well be my favourite (or at least one of them) of all market subzis. When foreign guests try the bharta, they usually love it. Not only is it relatively mild in its spicing – you can actually taste the flavour of the original vegetable, which is not always true of other Indian-style sabzis – but it is also a flavour that many foreigners recognise immediately. Their reference point, though, is not some restaurant version of the dish – baingan bharta is not a popular dish at most Indian restaurants abroad – but the baingan dishes of Middle Eastern cuisine. (Pedants may want me to point out that the baingan is a berry, in scientific terms, and not, technically speaking, a vegetable. But as this column is called Rude Food and not Pointless Pedantry, we shall ignore them!)
Sometimes guests will tell me that it reminds them of the Turkish Imam Bayildi. This baingan dish is probably more famous than it deserves because of its unusual name which translates loosely as “the Imam fainted.” There are many stories about how the name originated. One version has it that an Imam swooned with joy because the dish was so wonderful. Another has it that one day, when his wife ran out of olive oil, she could not make it. On hearing that the dish would not be served, the Imam was so angry that he fainted. A third, more cynical version, is that the poor man fainted when he heard how much olive oil was used in the preparation of the dish.
Personally, I have never found more than a very tenuous parallel between our baingan bharta and Imam Bayildi. But I do see the point. The food of the Middle East, and the Mediterranean region as a whole, uses lots of baingan. Melanzane Parmigiana, one of the world’s most famous Italian dishes, for instance, is based on baingan.
Over the years, bitter experience has made me cautious about claiming anything as our own. Many of the vegetables, pulses, and flavours that we consider central to Indian cuisine turn out to have come from the Americas and were introduced to India by European colonialists: chilli, potato, rajma, etc.
So it is with dishes. They are not always of indigenous origin. Our pulao comes from the Turkish pilaf, the samosa is a variation of the Middle Eastern sambusak. The jalebi came to India from West Asia. Tea was planted in Darjeeling by the British who brought the plants from China. Coffee came from the Arabs. And so on.
So I have never made any great claims about baingan. And Western authors have told us that even the word baingan comes from the Persian badinjan. The other ‘English’ name we use for the vegetable, brinjal, is said to come from the Portuguese berinjela.
And indeed, fancy people in the West don’t use any of these names. In America, they call it an eggplant. In England, they call it an aubergine. The Italians call it melanzana (which is why their famous dish is called Melanzane Parmigiana.)
No doubt, I thought, it would turn out that the Turks or the Europeans sent us baingan. Or perhaps it came to India with European imperialists.
We gave the vegetable to the rest of the world. The Turks, the Italians and everybody else, took it from us