Meera Sodha

The Guardian - Weekend - - Starters Contents - Meera Sodha @meera­sodha

Some peo­ple end up work­ing in the food in­dus­try by ac­ci­dent, but for most, there is prob­a­bly a piv­otal mo­ment: a par­tic­u­lar meal out or a great suc­cess in the kitchen that changed every­thing, for ever.

The mo­ment that changed the course of my life took place in a curry house on Lon­don’s Brick Lane at the age of 18. I’d just left home for univer­sity, and hadn’t re­alised quite how much I’d miss my mother’s cook­ing. In my quest for spice, I dragged my friends out to eat and was shocked when they asked me, the only In­dian at the ta­ble, what to or­der: ro­gan josh, ko­rma or jal­frezi?

It was then I re­alised that if my friends thought this was real In­dian food, then per­haps many oth­ers did, too. I wanted to show them the fresh, pre­dom­i­nantly veg­e­tar­ian food I’d grown up eat­ing, but there was only one prob­lem: I didn’t know how to cook it.

I rang my mother and asked her to send me recipes. “But dar­ling, I’ve never writ­ten any­thing down. If you want to learn, you have to come and watch me. That’s how I learned to cook, and your grandma and all the women in our fam­ily.”

The next morn­ing, I was on the train home to Lin­colnshire, and the first thing I learned was a sim­ple au­bergine curry. I hov­ered over my mother, beg­ging her to use level tea­spoons, not heaped, and doc­u­mented each stage. She gently laughed at me. “Learn to cook with your eyes,” she said. “Taste ev­ery in­gre­di­ent be­fore it goes into the pan, while it’s cook­ing and af­ter­wards – that way, you’ll learn how they be­have and you can use your judg­ment.” That re­mains the best ad­vice she’s ever given me.

To­day’s dish is a sim­pler ver­sion of that au­bergine curry. It’s the one my mother and I cook when we want some­thing quick. It has no onions or gin­ger to peel and fry (sav­ing much time), and uses only chilli and turmeric for spice, rather than the usual ground cumin and co­rian­der. For ex­tra depth and flavour, you could add all those in­gre­di­ents; but some­times, most times, I think sim­plest is best.

Au­bergine, black-eyed bean and dill curry

Aubergines are the sub­ject of hot de­bate, rang­ing from “To salt or not to salt?” to “Do they soak up too much oil?” Here are my thoughts: there is no need to salt aubergines un­less they have lots of seeds, which most of those in the UK don’t (and which are what can make them bit­ter). And use as much oil as you please: once the aubergines are done cook­ing, they’ll re­lease the oil back into the pan and it can be re­moved. Dill adds a fresh grassi­ness to this curry, but if you’re not fond of it, add it lit­tle by lit­tle, or leave it out al­to­gether. Serves four.

4 tbsp rape­seed oil

5 gar­lic cloves, peeled and sliced

4 big vine toma­toes, roughly chopped (or 400g tinned toma­toes)

1 ¼ tsp Kash­miri chilli pow­der

(or reg­u­lar mild chilli pow­der)

¾ tsp turmeric

1⅓ tsp salt (or to taste)

900g aubergines (about 3), cut in half length­wise and then into 1cm semi-cir­cles

400g tin black-eyed beans, drained 40g fresh dill, finely chopped

Heat the oil in a fry­ing pan on a medium flame and, when hot, add the gar­lic and let it siz­zle for a cou­ple of min­utes, un­til it turns pale gold. Add the toma­toes (take care, be­cause they might spit) and cook for 15 min­utes, un­til creamy, then add the chilli, turmeric and salt. Cook for a cou­ple of min­utes more, then gently fold in the au­bergine slices and pop a lid on the pan.

Cook for 20 min­utes, stir­ring ev­ery five min­utes, un­til the aubergines are soft and col­laps­ing, then stir in the beans and cook for two to three min­utes more, un­til the beans are hot. Fi­nally, stir in the dill.

Serve with steamed bas­mati rice, cha­p­atis and a non-dairy yo­ghurt of your choice.

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