Currying Flavor

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Culinary educator Raghavan Iyer demystifies the flavor of Indian curries in his book, 660 Curries.

Baingan Nu Bharto
Smoky Eggplant with Garlic and Red Chiles
Serves 6

Here is an example that shatters the myth of turmeric as the omnipresent curry spice. Armed with only five ingredients, this recipe shows the layers of complexities you can create with a few readily available ingredients. I break the mold and serve this as a fascinating appetizer, slathered onto pieces of crostini (toasted slices of French or Italian bread), along with a glass of wine as a precursor to a full-blown, robust curry dinner.

2 medium-size eggplants (2 to 2 1/2 lbs total)
2 tsps rock salt
4 large cloves garlic
3 fresh red Thai or cayenne chiles, stems removed (see tip below)
2 Tablespoons Ghee (page 21) or melted butter

1. Preheat a gas (or charcoal) grill, or the broiler, to high.

2. Prick the eggplants in multiple spots with a fork or knife (this prevents them from bursting when you grill or broil them). Don’t bother to remove the stems, since they will be discarded once you skin the eggplants. If you are grilling, place the eggplants on the grill grate, cover the grill, and cook, turning them periodically to ensure even grilling, until the skin is evenly charred, about 25 minutes. If you use the broiler, position the broiler rack so the eggplants will be about 6 inches from the heat. Place the eggplant directly on the rack, or on a rack in a broiler pan, and broil, turning them periodically, until the skin is evenly charred, about 25 minutes.

3. While the eggplants are grilling, sprinkle the rock salt into a mortar and add the garlic and chiles. With the pestle, pound the contents into a pulpy mass, frequently scraping the paste from the bottom and folding it within itself to ensure and even mix.

4. Place the grilled eggplants in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let them sweat in their own heat until the skin appears shriveled, about 15 minutes. Once the eggplants are cool to the touch, peel them and discard the stems along with the skin. You will notice that there are eggplant juices in the bowl — make sure you do not discard them. Mash the eggplants well with a potato masher. (I often use a clean hand to do this if a masher is not handy.)

5. Fold the garlic-chile paste into the smoky-smelling eggplant.

6. Heat the ghee in a wok or a large skillet over medium heat. Add the eggplant pâté and stir-fry for 10 to 12 minutes. This creates a second layer of roasted flavor and also roasts the garlic without burning it. Then serve.

Tip: Stop by any Asian grocery store to find mounds of fresh Thai chiles in the refrigerated produce section. Hand-pick the fiery reds for this recipe. If you don’t have access to such a store, go to the spice aisle of your supermarket, where you will find a jar or a bag of dried red chiles labeled Chiles Japones (means Japanese but these are Thai chiles) or Chile de Arbol (cayenne). Soak the required number of chiles in a bowl of hot water until reconsitituted, about 30 minutes.

Toasted Twenty-Spice Blend
East Indian Bottle Masala
Makes 2 cups

1 cup dried red Thai or cayenne chiles, stems removed
2 Tablespoons yellow split peas (chana dol), picked over for stones
2 Tablespoons kanak or wheat berries
1 Tablespoon uncooked long-grain white rice
½ cup coriander seeds
1 Tablespoon black or yellow mustard seeds
1 Tablespoon white sesame seeds
1 Tablespoon white poppy seeds
1 Tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp whole cloves
½ tsp cardamom seeds from green or white pads
½ tsp nutmeg shavings
3 whole star anise 3 cinnamon sticks (each 3 inches long), broken into smaller pieces
3 blades mace, or ¼ tsp ground mace
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
2 Tablespoons ground Kashmiri chiles; or 1½ teaspoons cayenne (ground red pepper) mixed with 1½ Tablespoons sweet paprika
1 Tablespoon ground turmeric

1. Combine all the ingredients except the ground mace, if using, the ground Kashmiri chiles, and turmeric, in a medium-sized bowl.

2. Preheat a wok or a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mixture and toast, shaking the pan every few seconds, until the chiles blacken slightly, the coriander and cumin turn reddish brown, the rice and yellow split peas turn light brown in patches, the cloves, peppercorns, and cardamom turn ash-black, the cinnamon and bay leaves appear brittle and crinkly, and it is highly fragrant, 4 to 6 minutes.

3. Immediately transfer the nutty-smelling spices to a plate to cool. (The longer they sit in the hot skillet, the more likely it is that they will burn, making them bitter and unpalatable.) Once they are cool to the touch, place them, in batches, in a spice grinder or coffee grinder and grind until the texture resembles that of finely ground black pepper. (If you don't allow the spices to cool, the ground blend will acquire unwanted moisture from the heat, making the final blend slightly "cakey.") As each batch is ground, pour it into the same medium-size bowl. (Alternatively, because you have a large quantity of ingredients, pour them all into a blender jar and grind them in one batch.) When all the spices are ground, stir in the ground mace, the ground Kashmiri chiles, if that's what you used, and the turmeric. The ground blend will be sweet and complex, very different from those of the pre-toasted and post-toasted (pre-ground) whole spices.

4. Store in an airtight container, away from excess light, heat, and humidity, for up to 2 months. (In my opinion, refrigerating the blend adversely affects its flavors.)

Recipes courtesy of Raghavan Iyer's 660 Curries.

Music break: African Honeymoon by Bun Hunga & His Combo