by Kaveri Ponnapa
Some food knowledge travels serenely, passing from generation to generation without any fuss. Everyone has the ingredients and instructions written down safely somewhere, or an aunt or two knows how to make that particular dish. But some recipes just vanish. We all remember a dish we ate and loved and who made the best version, but no one remembered to write down the recipe, or learn how to make it. These dishes are often the source of much regret-filled discussion at family gatherings, everyone wondering how on earth they could have let a gem of a recipe slip away into oblivion.
An avid recipe collector since my teens, over the years I stashed away so many of them that even I didn't know how many I had. Although I cook every day and leaf my way through the piles of hand written pages and scraps of paper that have accumulated over the years, they still surprise me by falling out of folders and from between the pages of books –sheets of paper, sometimes worn so thin that the ink has seeped through onto the other side, presenting a smudgy, blurred version of the recipe. But there's nothing wrong with the taste when you follow the instructions and cook the dish.
There were a few that slipped away, though, and one of them was my mother-in-law's brinjal pickle. It was always made in smallish quantities. I imagine the shelf life was not too long: I never found out, because it always vanished very quickly. Brinjals –we never called them aubergines, or eggplants –are ideally suited to pickling in spices. Their soft, spongy texture is perfect for absorbing the flavours of spice. They simply guzzle oil, as anyone who has fried them knows, but that's what turns them soft and velvety, to be loved, mashed into hot white rice, or squashed into an akki otti or chappati. It is such a mundane vegetable, that we take it entirely for granted, often ignoring it's hidden qualities that make it such an asset in livening up everyday cooking. Brinjal pickle is one of those ordinary sort of recipes that makes use of whatever is easily, inexpensively available to turn out something absolutely delicious, the kind of kitchen genius with which Coorg women are so gifted.
I had forgotten about brinjal pickle for years until one day, a regular reader and great supporter of The Coorg Table™ wrote in with his mother's recipe for it. It was so good, he said, that even confirmed brinjal haters mistake it for something better, and eat it with enthusiasm. So, with a sample kindly shared by his mother, I set about making a small batch, following her recipe, and trying at the same time to recall the taste of the pickle I had eaten so many years ago.
Chetan Bopanna's mother had used the long, slim, light green brinjals, while my mother-in-law had used the purple ones. But there was no doubt about the taste. This was the pickle: sharp, richly coloured, with butter soft pieces of brinjal coated in a spice paste. The trial batch was eaten up so quickly that I had to put off posting on my blog, and make some more to be photographed. It was also one of the simplest, most undemanding pickles I had ever made. Salt and those familiar dry-roasted Coorg spices did their work effortlessly; the deep fried pieces of brinjal sank comfortably into a cushion of oil and spice paste, made sharp with vinegar. A faint bitterness from toasted fenugreek and sweetness from sugar added layers of their own.
I don't want to say much more about this pickle, except that I know that there will always be a bottle in my kitchen from now on. I doubt if I am going to bother doing much research into its shelf life though, considering the speed at which it disappears each time it is made. I have Padeyanda Rathi Bopanna to thank, for restoring a lost recipe to my collection.
Cook's Note : This pickle is ready to eat almost as soon as it is made. A few days to allow the spices to settle works well. You can increase or reduce to the quantity of the dried red chillis that you use according to taste.
Image Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
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