One of the most joyful things about being a cook is that the smallest discoveries delight you. A special find can make your day. And these days that’s just as well, with our glorious Mother of Parliaments looking like crack whore, spewing out less than Honourable Members hell bent on venally redefining shamelessness in a way that makes Katie Price look like a particularly devout Amish sister.
As I walked past the little Indian green grocers on our high street, I was thrilled to see a crate of gorgeous, fat baby aubergines. So pretty and tempting, I couldn’t resist picking up a few handfuls, along with a bundle of perky curry leaves. When I went inside to pay, the gently smiling woman at the till explained to me how she stuffed them and baked them and it sounded delicious. Just the thing for dinner.
To be honest, our sharing of this recipe was largely done in the international language of mime and point. And I was delayed in writing it down as my short trip home became rather protracted due to it taking me 30 minutes to pay a cheque into the bank. (HSBC Stoke Newington High Street – one working teller and a seemingly permanently broken paying-in machine at 3.15pm, are you sure? No, I don’t want to buy travel insurance in Turkish, investigate an ISA, arrange to purchase a house within the framework of Shariah law, stock up on travellers’ cheques - I just want to GIVE. YOU. MY. MONEY. PLEASE. I’ve stood in shorter, more cheerful queues when I lived in Soviet Russia.)
So I hope I remembered it accurately. I probably didn’t, but it was good. And - note to Members of Parliament everywhere - I paid for it all myself. You should try it sometime.
Gosh, I sound a bit cross today. I’m probably just hungry…
I didn’t have any chillies – an uncharacteristic oversight on my part – and they would have been good in this dish. But given my present state of mind, I probably don’t need the extra heat.
Serves 4 as a main course
3 tbsps groundnut oil
A dozen or so small aubergines
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 onions, halved and finely sliced
2-3 curry leaves
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 mild, green chilli, deseeded and chopped (optional, depending on your state of mind)
A small ‘thumb’ of ginger, peeled and finely grated or minced
3-4 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and finely grated or minced
About a small teacupful of desiccated, unsweetened coconut
3-4 large, juicy tomatoes, grated (see TIP)
A small handful of coriander leaves, roughly chopped, plus a few more for garnishing
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6.
Cut the aubergines from their bases to their tips and cut them again crossways, being careful not to cut all the way through the skin – you want a cross-shaped cut which allows you to open them up a bit. Warm 2tbsps of the oil over a medium heat in a large saucepan and sauté the aubergines for five minutes or so until they soften and browned a little. Put to one side to cool while you prepare the stuffing.
Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the pan and fry the mustard seeds for a minute or so until they start to pop. Add the onions and sauté them until they soften and turn a rich, golden brown. (Unlike most European dishes, where we cook onions until they’re soft, sweet and translucent, lots of the flavour in Indian dishes comes from caramelising the onions.) Stir in the curry leaves, cumin, ground coriander, chilli (if you’re not as cross as me and you can take the heat), ginger and garlic and a good pinch of salt. Stir and cook for a few minutes until all of the onions are well coated. Add the coconut and tomatoes and stir until thickened a bit, then stir in the chopped coriander. Taste, and add a bit more salt if it needs it. Stuff each of the aubergines with a couple of spoonfuls of the filling and line them up in an ovenproof dish. Cover tightly with foil or a lid and bake for 50-60 minutes. We ate ours with basmati rice, minty raita and black pepper poppadoms. I feel more cheerful just typing that.
Look, I spend very few unhappy moments in the kitchen, but almost all of them have involved skinning tomatoes. Chopping onions? Mincing chillies? Gutting fish? No problem. Pile ‘em up. But tomatoes. All that cutting of crosses, boiling of water and preparing of ice baths seems a bit too like some kind of arcane pagan ritual to me. I mean, I just want to eat them, not sacrifice them on the altar of gastronomy. These days, I mostly grate them unless I’m doing something very refined. Just press a ripe tomato against the coarse side of a box grater and grate away – you get all of the pulpy flesh and, as you press, the skin is left at the end all ready for you to discard. And what’s a few seeds between friends, particularly on a week night?