When people come to my house for dinner, they’re often surprised. I think it’s because they come expecting Bengali cuisine, and they’re often expecting heavy Bengali meats, potatoes, and pulao. Don’t get me wrong - there’s almost nothing I love more than meat, potatoes, and rice (my middle name is Carb), but I think there’s something very elegant and dignified about the way Bengalis prepare vegetables.
We mash them into bhorta, we sauté them into bhaji, we make our own dolma, we dry them in the sun to make bora - heck, we even steam our beloved vegetables with freshly ground poppy seed paste. The vegetarian (and vegan) dishes are endless and vary by the region in Bengal. It’s a shame that these dishes are not often highlighted at most restaurants. That’s where this all changes.
Meat lovers, I’d love for you to meet the mighty eggplant, the aubergine.
This begun’er tok (pickled/tangy eggplant) recipe works with a variety of eggplants (fairy tale, Thai baby eggplants, graffiti eggplants), but I think you’ll get the best coloring with dark purple-fleshed Italian or Japanese eggplants. Begun’er tok is sweet, spicy, and tangy from the tamarind glaze. It has enough complexity from the panch phoron* to pair this with an array of dishes - jasmine rice, Bengali daal, parathas, khichuri, and yes, even meat curries.
*I’ve included a simple recipe for panch phoron (Bengali five spice) below.
Begun’er Tok: Bengali Charred Eggplants with a Sweet & Spicy Tamarind Glaze
Serves 2 (as a side)
300g dark eggplant, cut into ½-inch-thick half-moon slices (roughly less than a pound/one medium sized eggplant)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
⅛ teaspoon asafetida, optional
1 teaspoon panch phoron (Bengali five spice)*
2 green Thai bird chilies, slit in half (or 1 teaspoon Kashmiri red chili powder)
2 teaspoons tamarind paste (the Swad brand works well for this recipe; if you’re using tamarind straight from a seedless block, use a 1 teaspoon wedge instead)
¼ cup hot water
2 teaspoons ground palm sugar (or dark brown sugar)
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
*Panch phoron (Bengali five spice) is a mix of five whole spices (panch means 5 in Bangla). Panch phoron is commonly used in Bengali cooking, and it pairs perfectly with roasted vegetables, pickles, and lentils.
You can easily make this spice blend at home. To make your own panch phoron, combine equal parts of the following whole spices: cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, black mustard seeds, and nigella seeds. Store in an airtight container.
Parchment lined baking sheet
Wok or sauté pan
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Prepare the eggplant: Slice the eggplant into ½-inch-thick half-moons. Transfer sliced eggplants to a parchment lined baking sheet, and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and ½ teaspoon of kosher salt to the slices. Mix to coat evenly. Bake in the oven until the eggplants begin to char and caramelize around the edges (roughly 20-25 minutes). Remove from oven, and set aside.
Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the asafetida and panch phoron (Bengali five spice). Cook for about 30 seconds until the panch phoron is fragrant and the seeds begin to pop (careful not to burn). Add the cooked eggplants and green chilies (or Kashmiri chili powder) to the pan, and gently toss to combine. Cook for a minute more.
Add the tamarind paste and ¼ cup of hot water. It will sizzle for a few seconds. Then, sprinkle the ground palm sugar over the eggplants, and gently mix to combine. Cook until the sauce has reduced down to a glaze type consistency (about 3-5 minutes). Sprinkle a pinch of kosher salt onto the dish.
Taste a bit of the glaze to check for seasoning, and adjust to taste using a bit more kosher salt, sugar, or chilies as necessary.
Garnish with cilantro just before serving. Serve warm with jasmine rice or khichuri, and Bengali daal.
If you try any of my recipes, share on Instagram by using the hashtag #afsanaliza & tagging me at @afsana so I can see your creations!