I feel like most people, when asked what their favorite vegetable is, would say corn or butternut squash or potatoes (though I bet they actually like the salt and fat that comes with the potatoes). Or perhaps mushrooms. But not me. I. Love. Eggplant. Stewed with tomatoes (imam biyaldi). Simply fried with salt and turmeric (chaak bhaji). In a curry with the insanely boney hilsa fish. In the Sicilian sweet/savory relish known as caponata. In every way except babaghanoush (sorry, haters gon hate). Or this way: charred over an open flame, peeled then mashed with simmering onions, tomatoes, garlic and spices.
Now, I know traditionally a bhorta consists of some boiled or steamed vegetable (or dried fish) mashed or really well mixed with raw onion, Thai chilli, mustard oil, salt and cilantro. But one fine day my mom made this and said hey, this is begun bhorta. And even though the cooking process more closely resembles a mishti kumro ghonto (think: spiced, simmered pumpkin mush), it stuck.
Charring it is a bit of a pain. The juices get all over the burner. Peeling the charred pieces of skin is a pain. But the payoff is well worth it. You could perhaps do it under the broiler. I haven’t given it a go. Right now I am sticking to tried and true methods of prep. So, here it is:
1 medium eggplant, poked all around with a knife or fork
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, diced (yellow or red)
2 cloves garlic, minced (or 1tsp garlic paste)
1 tomato, diced
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp coriander
A pinch of chilli powder
1/2 tsp salt, plus more to taste
A handful of fresh cilantro
Over a medium flame, start charring the eggplant by placing directly onto heat and rotating using a pair of tongs every two minutes or so (or with your fingers if you’re hardcore like my mom). It should be cooked all the way through in about 10 to 12 minutes. Prep the rest of the ingredients in the meantime.
When the eggplant is done, remove from heat and allow to cool. Then peel off the skin using your fingers or tongs, doing the best you can to get as much of it off as you can. Cut off the top and set aside.
Heat oil over medium high heat in a wok or fry pan. Add onions and tomatoes. Allow to soften a few minutes, then add garlic and the rest of the spices/seasonings (if you only have garlic/ginger paste on hand, use that). Add the eggplant and break up any chunks using a wooden spoon. Lower the heat to medium/medium low. Mix it all together and let the flavors combine while prepping the cilantro.
Off the heat, add the cilantro and check for seasoning. Serve with basmati rice or roti.
Note: as with most bengali cooking, you do not need to follow a recipe to a T to get fantastic results. Feel free to use chopped Thai chili in lieu of the chili powder. Or a dash of mustard oil for more of a kick. For example, I had some extra red pepper on hand so I added it. Made it look a ton prettier. Just don’t skimp on the charring because it really makes this dish.