Boston: Baingan Bhartha at Punjab Palace
My love for eggplant started later in life (like, two years ago), but I've been addicted to it ever since. It's the spongy fruit's transformative quality that impresses me most; when exposed to enough heat over a long enough period of time, even the densest, thickest specimen will collapse into a plush, silky mass that readily soaks up just about any flavor you throw at it: tangy wine vinegar, raisins, and capers (Sicilian caponata); salty fish sauce and sweet basil (braised Taiwanese eggplant); fruity olive oil, tahini, tart lemon juice, and wood smoke (Middle Eastern baba ghanoush).
In fact, it's the essence of live fire cooking that draws me to this specific North Indian dish: the baingan bhartha at Allston's Punjab Palace ($7.45 at lunch/$12.95 at dinner). I've always maintained that no cuisine caters to a vegetarian diet more capably than Indian food, and this preparation (along with a really good lalla musa dal, a.k.a. braised lentil stew—future blog topic) is a prime example.
Here (and at the restaurant's sister location, India Quality, in Kenmore Square), it's a three-step process: An open flame chars the fruit's dense flesh before the chef mashes it with plenty of ginger, garlic, and heady spices. Finally, it takes a turn in the skillet with onions, plump green peas, and barely wilted green chiles. (If you're so inclined, crank up the fire to level three, but keep a burn-cooling lassi within close reach. The heat is no joke.) The result is smoky, silky, faintly sweet—and best served with a pile of steamed basmati rice and a swatch of garlicky naan.