The glorious history of the humble 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.
But, I am happy to say, I was completely wrong. The baingan is ours. We gave it to the rest of the world. The Turks, the Italians and everybody else, took it from us. They may give it fancy names. But it is an ancient Indian vegetable. It appears in all our ancient texts – even our epics – and we have had the first ever name for it: the Sanskrit vrantakam from which the Hindi baingan came. As for the Arabic name of which so much is made, well it looks like Badinjan is derived from the Sanskrit vrantakam.
What’s more, I don’t think we took any of our recipes from Arabs or other foreigners either. The food historian, Colleen Taylor Sen, has tracked down a baingan recipe from the first known Indian cookbook, the Pakashastra. Because this is a work of 760 verses, passed down orally, it is difficult to date accurately. But most estimates place it in the same period as the Mahabharat.
One baingan recipe, discovered by Sen, requires you to take cubes of baingan and mix them with ground coriander, cumin, black pepper, imli, mango powder and dahi. When the baingan pieces are fully coated with the paste, they are fried in ghee. Then, they are wrapped in palm leaves along with aromatic flowers and camphor and sautéed in hot ghee. Eventually they are removed from the leaves and served on their own.
Not only is this recipe, with its double-frying, quite complicated but it sounds a lot like the Indian cooking of today. So, thousands of years ago, long before Jesus Christ was born, India already had a sophisticated cuisine in which the baingan played a key role.
By the medieval period, the famous baingan dishes of modern Indian cooking – including the baingan bharta – had already been created and documented.
So how did the Middle East get into the baingan act? Well, before we worry about that, consider the role of the baingan in the Far East. The Thais have several different kinds of baingan including the little pea aubergine which they put into curries. The Chinese also use baingan in their cooking. And so do the Japanese.
Where did they get their baingans from?
From us, probably!
Most theories suggest that the baingan plant travelled from India to South-East Asia, and then China during the prehistoric or ancient periods. By the time the rest of the world discovered the baingan, we, in South and East Asia, already knew it well.
So when did the Arabs/Turks get hold of it?
Long after the Far East. That’s for sure.
It is hard to say exactly when because, contrary to popular belief, India and the Middle East were trading partners much before the birth of Islam. The Indus Valley Civilisation was a trading partner of Mesopotamia (roughly equivalent to today’s Iraq) and the commercial links continued to flourish through the centuries.
Moreover, while there are extensive records of how the Arabs took the baingan to Europe, there seem to be relatively few records of how it got to the Middle East from India in the first place. What seems likely, judging by the baingan’s appearances in Arab culinary texts, is that it did not actually became common or popular till about the 8th Century AD or several centuries after the first Indian recipes for early Baigun Bhaja had already been recorded in Indian texts.
The Arabs had opened trade routes (and military supply lines – they first invaded Spain as early as 8 AD) with Europe and these were probably used to export the baingan. The Italians saw their first baingans in the 13th Century. The variety the Arabs sold them was white in colour and looked like eggs on stems. This version reached England in the 1600s, was called eggplant, and described thus: “the bigness of swan’s egg, of a white colour and sometimes yellow and often brown”. The characteristic purple colour we associate with the baingan came much later as new varieties were farmed.
Opinions will vary but I believe that people who live in cold countries do not understand the flavour of the baingan or know how to cook it. Arabs, Turks and Persians have warm weather cuisines so they have created great baingan dishes. And the only Europeans who make good use of it are those in warmer Mediterranean
Europe where ratatouille and Melanzane Parmigiana were created.
But none of those dishes – neither Turkish nor Southern European – seem to me to even come close to the glories that the baingan has been raised to in our cuisine. No matter which part of India you go to, there is a great baingan dish: the baigun bhaja of Bengal, the bharta of North India, the simple ringan nu shaak of Gujarat or the many wonderful baingan preparations of Andhra, ranging from Vankaya Peanut Kura to the Bharti Vangal.
So whenever a foreign guest tells me he likes the bharta at my house and asks if it is Middle Eastern in
origin, I have my answer ready.
“No,” I say. “It is an original Indian vegetable. We cultivated it. And we gave it to the world.”
And then I smile. It’s nice to be proud of the lesser-known glories of Indian vegetarian cuisine.
From HT Brunch, September 4, 2016
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