A Bittersweet Beauty

by Kaveri Ponnapa

In the rush of everyday cooking, it's often easy to overlook the beauty and individuality of very ordinary ingredients. Take the familiar aubergine, for instance. It comes in so many shapes, sizes and colours – round, large, shiny purple, pale green, white striped and streaked. It grows easily in back gardens and you can see it heaped up on vegetable carts, and arranged in formidable ranks like some shining, armour-plated army in vegetable markets. Its flowers, usually ignored, are lavender, papery and very pretty.

Mostly taken for granted, or snapped at, when errant bristles from the stem stab at fingers when washing or trimming it, the aubergine is in fact a contrary beauty. It is a fruit, but always cooked and eaten as a vegetable. Its firm, shiny skin is always cool, smooth and silken, a pleasure to run your hands over, until your fingers snag with small, sharp barbs on the stem. Spongy, flecked with seeds, carrying bitter undercurrents, it quickly loses its gleaming beauty when cooked, dissolving into an unattractive mess and, what flavours it yields depends entirely upon the cook.

My husband has always been the greatest admirer, supporter – and consumer – of my cooking ever since the day we met. Over the years, he maintained a prudent silence on his mother's formidable cooking skills, and barely referred to them, except for her bainay barthad, fried aubergine. He described it in such vivid detail, that my mouth watered, and the next time we visited the family home, I mentioned this to her. Looking surprised and pleased, she quickly put together all the ingredients, and proceeded to demonstrate how to cook them. Taking care to keep the stem intact, she spent what seemed like most of the morning slicing the aubergines thin and frilly, painstakingly working on each individual piece, making sure she kept the slicing neat and even. As she sliced, they fanned out prettily, and she plunged them into cold water to keep them from discolouring. Once they were ready, it did not take her long to fry them, adding a dash of this and a bit of that in sharp, quick movements. The result was the ugliest looking fry that I had ever seen. All the beautiful purple had vanished, to leave behind a tangled mass of dark brown tentacles, which is what remained of the delicate frills. I stared, wondering about the wasted effort, and then hesitantly, tried a little – just a very little. It was delicious. I worked my way through a large helping, and although I did not know it then, this was the dish that would start a long and wonderful correspondence about food with my mother-in-law. In the years we lived overseas, I would write and ask her for a recipe and the reply would come on sheets of pale blue paper. I still have many of these letters, with recipes, instructions and assorted bits of family news and gossip written across them.

Bainay barthad, with its messy, unappetizing looks is such a contrast to the flavour it offers. The soft, spongy texture of the flesh absorbs the sour from kachampuli, the Coorg vinegar, and presents a mixture of spice from red chilli powder, sweetness from a little bit of jaggery and a faint bitterness all its own. On the table, I often save it for last, settling down with a puffed up akki otti or chapatti – or two – scraping every last, squashy bit off my plate. Beauty, in this case, is definitely in the eyes of the beholder.

Thank you for visiting this page. If you read something that you enjoy, or see an image that you like, please take a moment to write a response. Do look out for the recipes of all the food featured here in my upcoming cookbook.

Image Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa

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