I grew up watching my mother cook. I can recall myself sitting on the floor outside the kitchen where she cooked, closely watching her every action. She would squat on the wooden footrest of a paniki (cutting instrument, called as boti in Bengali), her foot gripped tight on the floor as she sliced and diced vegetables on the cutting edge of the instrument. If I ambled closer, she would gently pull me aside. While the pressure cooker hissed on the gas stove fogging the marbled wall behind, she would quickly look after the rumbling water in the dekchi (flat bottomed cooking pot) announcing that rice was on its way. I would demand her attention sometimes, tugging at the loose end of her saree smelling like summer breeze, and she would make me sit with a plate of grains and a sieve to let them dance through it. She would then take the pressure cooker off the gas stove and often place an eggplant, slathered with robustly smelling mustard oil, atop the open flame.
The story of the baigana poda (in Odia) or baingan chokha (in Hindi) has just begun. Mother would toss and turn the eggplant every five minutes, holding the pointy end of the eggplant and then add a oil smeared tomato. The king of vegetables would sear with its companion, the tomato. Both of them eventually yield to the fire that scorches them black. Mother would take them off the heat and let them rest on a steel plate while she chopped an onion, a few green chilies and a spoonful of garlic cloves. She would carefully and yet quickly peel the charred skin off the vegetables, vapour coming off the shriveled vegetables, the kitchen filled in a smoky scent of the char. And, while mother mashed everything, her fingers rubbing onions, chilies, garlic and salt, I would always ask why does she not wash the hot eggplant under water and let it cool? Wouldn't her fingers feel better that way? She would answer patiently, every time to the same question, "We don't want to loose the flavour. Eggplant is a thirsty baby, loves to take in everything when hot!"
Mother still makes the baigana poda or the chokha this way, while I have to use the broiler to char the eggplant now. None of the houses that I have lived in Canada had an open flame gas stove, and the chokha-lover in me has tried every possible setting in the oven and broiler to get that rustic looking eggplant, the sunken vegetable with its skin singed, falling off with a slight pull of the fingers. Nothing satisfied me until recently, when I experimented a bit more with the broiler and the eggplant both. Although not smoky, it seemed familiar to the chokha I grew up eating. So, it's time I present it to you — my baingan chokha made in a broiler.
The term poda in Odia typically refers to something that's burnt while the term chokha in Hindi means something that's mashed. There's another word in Hindi, bharta which also means mashed. However, the more popular baingan bharta is different from a poda or a chokha. A bharta is generally double cooked. You char the eggplant and then cook it again with onions, tomatoes, spices and sometimes green peas or peanuts. I have seen this more in Punjabi and Maharashtrian households. A chokha or poda is a much simpler affair, rather bland if not for the pungent mustard oil, and more common in Odisha, West bengal, Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh. It's a simplistic way of eating a vegetable, almost resembling how our ancestors ate food — vegetables or meat roasted on a fire and then eaten without further cooking. Meat was patted and massaged with spices and salt while vegetables got the reverse treatment.
Hailing from the Solanaceae (night shade) family, the eggplant shares its heritage with tomatoes, potatoes and peppers. Although known as vegetables, eggplants are essentially the fruits of the Solanum melongena plant.
Indigenous to South and East Asia, eggplants are believed to have originated in India. Eggplants have been cultivated in India for about 4000 years, and are commonly known as brinjal, the word being derived from the Portuguese word beringela. Arabs introduced brinjals to Europe (known as aubergine in France and later in UK) while Persians took them to Africa where they came to be known as eggplants. Thomas Jefferson introduced eggplants in the United States, and it could have either been through seeds gotten from France or brought by newly arrived slaves from Africa, who actually did the gardening at Monticello.
Since it's extremely easy to make and hardly uses any utensils, chokha was a desired wartime food preparation during the Indian Mutiny in 1857, and was served with litti - whole wheat dough ball stuffed with sattu (gram flour) roasted over coal or wood and then smeared with ghee (clarified butten). The phenomenal litti-chokha from the state of Bihar in India forms a complete meal in itself. Food like chokha or poda remind us where our roots are, an elusive mnemonic of simple living. Do not dismiss this delicacy by its jejune appearance, something that makes it even harder to photograph! If you can get past its mien, I can assure you a lifetime of unconditional love. The eggplant literally burns off in heat to please your heart, and how gracefully!
Are there any tips for this recipe?
This recipe comes together in minutes if you're charring the eggplant on an open flame. There's no cooking involved! Ensure that you char the eggplant well and that's all to it!
If you're however using an oven for this, it will take longer. Depending on how your oven works and how well your broiler functions would decide how fast the eggplant cooks.
I suggest using large eggplant varieties for this recipe to get maximum flavour. My preferred choice of eggplants is the mid-sized Indian eggplants, but the purple ones and not the green ones. Other varieties that are ideal are the Italian and Globe eggplants. In either case, ensure that the eggplant is firm and fresh.
If you're using the smaller purple Indian eggplants, you'll need to use at least 3-4 eggplants for enough quantity.
I highly recommend using mustard oil for this recipe as its the flavour of the oil that imparts the distinct character to this dish. However, I understand it could be difficult to have edible mustard oil handy if you live outside India. Use a nice extra virgin olive oil in that case as a substitute. Whatever oil you use, the dish will taste like it. So, choose your favourite smelling oil if you can't get mustard oil or don't like it for some reason.
No dry spices are added to a chokha or poda. It's supposed to be eaten with raw onions, garlic and salt, and that's how I make it. You could add a hint of roasted and pounded cumin seeds, although I don't feel the need for it.
A charred tomato adds to the tartness and smokiness of the chokha. You can use few spoons of lime juice or amchur (dry mango powder) instead. I advise trying it with tomato first, and play with other souring agents the next time.
You can add boiled and mashed potatoes to the chokha as well. This is typical in Bihar. Odia and Bengali preparations are generally without the potatoes.
1 large eggplant or 2 medium ones
1 medium tomato
1 onion roughly chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic chopped and pounded
2 green chilies chopped
1 and 1/2 tsp mustard oil
Salt to taste
Wash the eggplant and tomato. Prick holes on both with a fork and apply 1/2 tsp mustard oil over both.
If you're using an open flame gas stove, place a roasting grill on the flame and then place the eggplant and tomato on it. Let them char, turning the vegetables every few minutes to ensure even charring. This should take about 10-15 minutes on medium flame. If you're using an oven, preheat the broiler. Place an aluminum foil on a baking tray and place the vegetables on it. I usually find that a whole eggplant takes a long time to char in an oven, and so, I slit the large eggplant length wise with the thorny end still intact and then place the eggplant on the tray lined with foil. Place the tray in the broiler or as close as possible to the heat source, and let it broil for about 20 minutes or until the vegetables seem done. For best results, let the inner side of the cut eggplant face the broiler, and during the last five minutes, turn to allow the skin side to face the broiler.
Switch off heat/oven and place the charred vegetables in a plate. Let it cool slightly or till a point when you can comfortably handle it.
Remove the charred skin off, pulling the pulp out. Use your clean hands (I use hands) or a potato masher to mash the pulp and add the onions, garlic, chilies, 1 tsp oil and salt.
Mix everything well and then add the remaining oil on top to garnish.
Your baigana poda or baingan chokha is ready to be served! Enjoy with with dal and rice or rotis (Indian flatbread). A Lebanese or Turkish flatbread also goes amazingly well with a chokha, just like Baba Ghanoush.
If you make this recipe, you can show me your creations by tagging me on Instagram or drop your comments here. I would love to hear from you!