One of the perks of being married to my husband is that he loves to cook. And he’s more than pretty good at it. This is one of the dishes he prepares when we get nice, young eggplant at the fruit and vegetable market. It’s similar to baba ghanoush but with a few differences, the most relevant to us being that Tim will actually eat this.
I’ve always loved eggplant. Growing up, two of my favorite eggplant (or talong in Tagalog) dishes were tortang talong (grilled eggplant stuffed with ground meat and cooked again like an omelet) and talong salad, which is made with tomatoes, grilled eggplant, onions, and a touch of vinegar. This baigan choka (baigan meaning “eggplant” and choka, a corruption of a Hindi word that refers to the technique of finishing a dish with hot flavored oil) is very close to the Philippine talong salad. Which probably explains why I took an instant liking to it.
We try to do a light, almost-vegetarian meal once a week or so, and when we do, this is always one of top choices. What’s more, it can easily be prepared ahead of time, which means that in the 20 minutes that it takes for me to cook the roti or naan to go with it, we can
beg threaten ask Tim to set the table, Tom can put the finishing touches on the choka, and we can sit down at the table with everything ready in less than half an hour.
There are many variations of this dish, and this is Tom’s current favorite. It starts with grilling the main ingredients: eggplant, tomatoes, and garlic. Ordinarily, we’d do this outside on the grill, but during winter, we do this indoors. But first, do yourself a favor and put some foil down around the burner to make cleanup a lot easier. Take a grill pan, place it right over the gas burner, and start roasting. Make sure you rub the eggplant with a little vegetable oil before roasting, then keep turning until all the sides are roasted and the eggplant is cooked. Do the same for the tomatoes and garlic.
You can also just roast it directly on the grate, without using a grill pan (notice the foil on the stove there). You really want the flames to hit the vegetables, which gives them that lovely charred flavor. There’s no need to coat the tomatoes or garlic with oil when you roast them.
Let the vegetables cool and peel the roasted skin off. You can do this the same way you would peel a roasted pepper, by placing them in a bowl and covering the bowl with plastic wrap. The steam helps loosen the skin, and makes peeling a lot easier.
After peeling, cut the tops off the eggplants and place then in a large bowl. Do the same with the tomatoes. The vegetables tend to release some water or moisture after roasting. Be sure to discard the liquid. Mash the eggplant and tomatoes in the bowl with a fork until there are no more chunks.
Then peel the roasted garlic, mash it with a fork, and add it to the bowl. Thinly slice an onion and add that to the mix. Season with salt and fresh hot pepper if you like it spicy (large pieces of Scotch bonnet or habanero, or jalapeno, so you can easily pick them out if it gets too spicy).
Now for the “choka” part of the dish. Right before serving, take a deep ladle, put about 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil in it and three crushed (but still whole) cloves of garlic in it. (Sometimes, I’ll sprinkle a few cumin seeds in there too.) Fire up the stove and hold the ladle right above the fire until the garlic starts to sizzle. Then take the hot oil with the garlic and pour this over the eggplant mixture. You’ll hear it sizzle, which is exactly what you want. Give it a final mix, tear yourself a piece of roti or naan, and dig in.
This is how my boys eat this. I’m the lightweight in the house when it comes to spice, so we make the dish mild. It’s perfect for me, and they chomp on fresh jalapenos on the side for added spice.
3 large purple eggplant
Rub the eggplant with a little vegetable oil. Roast the vegetables over open flame (either on a grill or directly on a gas stovetop) until the skins are charred and the vegetables are cooked. Let cool and peel the vegetables. Discard any extra liquid released.
Trim the stems off the eggplant. Chop the eggplant into pieces and put in a bowl. Add the tomatoes and mash with a fork until there are no more chunks. Take the peeled garlic, mash it with a fork, and add it to the mixture along with the slices of onion. Season with salt and some fresh hot pepper, to taste.
Right before serving, heat up 3-4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil with 2-3 smashed cloves of garlic. When garlic starts sizzling, take off heat and pour over the eggplant mixture. Give it one more stir, and serve with roti or naan.
It’s stuff like this that makes us look forward to our weekly vegetarian dinners.