Is baigan ka bharta India's most federal side-dish? The case of the plate of smoked aubergine that brought India together.

Baigan ka bharta lunch today. With chawli and roti (made from an Iranian origined grain called khodasan from Canada gifted by Sneha Kapadia)


It's raining intermittently in Mumbai today. When it does, it pours.

It is pretty lovely at Bandra, the suburb where I live. Ideal weather for a spot of writing. Horrible to be outside and caught in the traffic though. My sympathies, if you are. Hope you reach home safely to a nice and hot meal soon.

Lunch today was begun poraSmoked aubergine in Bengali. As someone pointed out to me in an Instagram DM the other day, this is indeed a side-dish or accompaniment that often features in my meals.

There is a reason for that. This is one dish from my mother's kitchen that I really enjoyed while growing up in Kolkata.

It is simple to make and I make it at home. I used to make it from scratch earlier. Nowadays our cook, Banu, smokes the whole aubergine (eggplant/ brinjal) on the gas hob and I later finish it on the pan with some finely chopped onions, green chillies and tomatoes, a light seasoning of salt, crushed black pepper, crushed cumin and a dash of red chilli powder, sauteed in mustard oil of course.

I add a few drops of mustard oil at the end. K loves it too.

The making of this post. Can you hear the birds
and the rain?

I did not always add mustard oil to begun pora I confess. Even though it is the Bengali thing to do so. As a kid I never took to the sharp taste of mustard oil after we moved into India from abroad. It is only in the last few years that I have woken up to its magic and it has now become a part of our pantry.

Bengalis in my timeline might also point out that in the traditional Bengali way of doing it, the mustard oil and condiments (onion, tomato, salt) are added kaacha (raw) to the smoked aubergine and then mashed together. That one doesn't lightly saute the stuff in oil and then add in the aubergine, the way I do,


Today's begun pora. My recipe: Smoke aubergine on the gas hob, peel off the skin.
Heat mustard oil. Add chopped green chillies, onions, tomato, coriander leaves.
Add smoked aubergine. Add salt, black pepper, red chilli, cumin powder. Mash.

But then, does anyone own begun pora? 

I am not even going to the middle east to talk about the babaganoush there. There are so many names for it in India itself. The most famous of which, thanks to Punjabi Bollywood stars and Punjabi TV chefs, is the baigan ka bharta. A standard order in all Punjabi/ north Indian/ 'Indian' restaurants. I have found the ones in Mumbai restaurants to be a lot more masala and oil laden and more mushy too, compared to the begun pora that we eat at home. My Punjabi friends disassociate themselves from this. "This is not how we make it at home they say. Ours is light too." Their's is made in mustard oil as is most other vegetarian dishes says Vernika Awal who has created the Delectable Punjab series on Punjabi food.

Incidentally, my mother had grown up in Delhi and had many Punjabi friends. She had taught in a Sikh run college before she got married to my father and went to the UK. I wonder if this played a role in the prolific presence of begun pora at our dinner table later in Kolkata.

Well, none of my Punjabi friends has fed me baigan bharta at home as far as I remember so I cannot vouch for their claim.

I have tried the Maharashtrian version of smoked aubergine, which is called vangyache bharit, twice. First at the Mahalaxmi Saras expo at Mumbai and later in the thali at Shreyas, the vegetarian restaurant in Pune. I found it to be incredibly similar to the Bengali begun pora in terms of its lightness and subtlety. I enjoyed both the versions that I had.

I am pretty sure that there would be versions of begun pora/ baigan bharta/ vnagyache bharit in other parts of the country too.

The east is a no-brainer. The Assamese smash everything around and call it pitika, and add prefixes as apt. The Odiyas have a doppelganger for every Bengali dish, with different names of course.  The question of which came first is not moot in this case. This is not a history of food post. I assumed that the Biharis would too. They would possibly call it chonkha.

That is how it plays out when it comes to mashed potatoes after all as you will see in the excerpt below from Vir Sanghvi's article on HT Brunch titled, 'why fight over food?' A thought that I strongly believe in myself.

Excerpt from Vir Sanghvi's HT brunch on the uniting power of food where
he features my take on alu sheddo/ pitika/ bhorta/ choka


So the north, west and east have it. What about the south of India? Are there versions of smoked aubergine dishes there? 

I put the question out on my social media, channels and to cut a long story short (when do I ever do that?), there are South Indian options too and more than one!


Been a while since so many people responded to a question on Twitter

Here is a bit of what I learnt. About begun pora across the country.

West

They call it ring na bharta in Gujarat, and in Kathiawad within it, ring na olo. Vangyache bharit no doubt in Maharashtra, but it has regional variations. In Khandesh, Marathwada, crushed peanuts and crushed green chillies are used for example, while in the coastal Konkan region, grated coconut goes in and for acidity, curd or tomatoes.

East

In the east in Assam it is called bengena pooora pitika, baigan chokka in Bihar (and UP) and in Odisha (and Bangladesh), baigan bhorta.

South

Coming to the south, in Karnataka, it is called badanekayi palya. I also learnt that in coastal Karnataka, there is a green called small round aubergine called Mattu Gulla which is used specifically for dish. It has a GI tag and is grown in a village called mattu. Unlike in the east where mustard oil rules, coconut oil is added here along with chillies.

In Andhra Pradesh, it is called vankaya chutney/ bhaaji, and along with green chillies and coriander, a bit of tamarind paste goes in too. In the east Godavari area of Andhra they do a variation called vankaya pachi pulusu. This apparently has quite a flavour packed seasoning of heeng, powdered udad dal, turmeric, salt, jaggery, tamarind pulp, crushed methi and mustard seeds. They do take their baigan bharta seriously here!

In Tamil Nadu, smoked aubergine is sutta kathirikkai. It is eaten both as a chutney on the side as well as the base for a raita with dahi.

Most of what I have just mentioned was learnt largely from tweets in response to mine. Given the dip in engagement that I see in twitter these days, this to me was proof as to how close we hold our smoked aubergine dishes to our hearts. Regardless of which part of the country that we belong to.

A couple of weeks back, Vir Sanghvi, ended his article in the HT Brunch by saying, 'food should unite us all, even when it is different.'

The begun pora, baigan ka bharta, bengena pitikia, baigan bharta, baigan choka, vanganyachi bharit, ring na olo, sutta kathirikkai, vankaya chutney, badanakeya palya...whatever name that you would like to call it by... has showed us how.

If you think that there is a version of baigan ka bharta that I have missed out on from your part of the country, then please write in with the name and description in the content section and I would love to add it in.

One more thing that I would like to know is what do you like to pair your version of smoked aubergine with. Roti or rice? It is the former for me.

Update 30th July 2019
1. A chat with Vernika reminded me of the fact that I have eaten the Punjabi baigan ka bharta at her house at a pop. I have a feeling that I might have eaten at my friend Sandeep Buddhiraja's too. Hence the ambiguity in wording earlier
2. The concern of an Odia reader of the post about the use of the word doppelganger in this post has been noted. Their point of view is that it was the Odiyas who taught these dishes to the Bengalis. Bengalis of the west I would guess, as my dna comes from the east but in any case a more appropriate wording in which case would be 'Bengalis have a doppelganger for every Odia dish.'

Appendix:

1. An earlier post of mine on begun pora with a recipe too
2. Screen grabs of some of the responses that you sent to my question on begin pora across India

Twitter:

Andhra

Assamese

Odiya

Gujarat, Andhra

Karnataka, Assam, TN, Odisha

Gujarat, Karnataka

Maharashtra
Instagram





 Facebook and a subcontinental touch



3. Vir Sanghvi's article in HT Brunch on 21/7/19 which was on a topic that is dear to me and in which I was thrilled to feature





Comments

Diana Sahu said…
I love the post but except one things, "Odiyas have a doppelganger for every Bengali dish". Do you know it was the Odia cooks who went to West Bengal in the 18th century and gave the State the dishes that it now claims is their own? That statement is factually incorrect and unexpected from an author. This might not be a history post but you cannot make irresponsible statements like that. And lastly, its Odias not Odiyas.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@DianaSahu thanks so much for writing and sharing your POV. I have acknowledged and addressed it in an update at the end of the post. Regards, Kalyan
Unknown said…
Kashmiris too have their own version of baigan bharta. But for many kashmiri cuisine is unknown apart from the usual ristaa and gushtaba. In our version it is called buz vangun. Smoked eggplant is added to curd and green chillies, kala zeera and salt are added. Like every other dish kashmiris eat it with rice.
Unknown said…
Kashmiris too have their own version of baigan bharta. But for many kashmiri cuisine is unknown apart from the usual ristaa and gushtaba. In our version it is called buz vangun. Smoked eggplant is added to curd and green chillies, kala zeera and salt are added. Like every other dish kashmiris eat it with rice.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@unknown thank you for sharing this. I have had some exposure to Kashmiri food but had not heard of this so thanks for sharing. I had no idea that Kashmiris are so fond of rice either