Westerners tend to think the full range of Indian main dishes consists of wet curries and tandoor-cooked meats. There are actually a huge array of cooking techniques used throughout the subcontinent. Today's eggplant and potato charchari demonstrates an unusual Bengali style never seen in American restaurants.
After the initial frying of spices, the vegetables are added along with enough water to steam them tender, and cooked without stirring until all of the water evaporates. Then they stay on the heat while the fat at the bottom of the pan fries the lowest layer of vegetables until crispy and dark. This crust is mixed into the dish to add a bit of flavor complexity reminiscent of outdoor cooking.
The result is a dryer-textured dish that makes a nice contrast to the typical saucy curry. Serve it with this Chana-Mushroom Masala, basmati rice, and plain yogurt or a simple raita for a real feast. The best pot for cooking a charchari is something heavy and easy to clean (but not non-stick) like an enameled cast iron Dutch oven.
A note about a couple of the ingredients in the recipe: curry leaves can be confusing. Curry powders are made from a mixture of many spices but do not include an actual curry leaf! Curry leaf is a somewhat tough, nutty-tasting leaf used a bit like a bay leaf in European cooking. It's added to a dish to infuse the flavor, but not eaten directly.
Many Indian groceries will have a stash of them, but you may have to ask. You can store them in the freezer and just pull out a few when you need them. If you can't find it, the charchari will be fine without it. Asafoetida powder, otherwise known as hing, will definitely be available at any Indian grocery. It is used in very small amounts to provide a resinous, garlicky background flavor and possibly a digestive benefit. If you don't have it, add a clove of minced garlic.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 4 tablespoons butter (or omit the vegetable oil and use 6 tablespoons of ghee)
- 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
- 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
- 2 serrano chiles, seeded and slivered
- 1/4 teaspoon asafoetida powder
- 6 curry leaves (if available)
- 1 1/4 pounds waxy potatoes, 1-inch dice
- 1 medium eggplant, about 1 pound, unpeeled, 1-inch dice
- 1 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 teaspooon turmeric powder
- 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 pinch ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
- garnish: cilantro or thinly sliced green onions
In a large, fairly deep pot (like a Dutch oven), heat the oil and butter over a medium flame. Add the mustard seeds, ginger, chiles and Asafoetida powder. Fry until the mustard seeds begin to pop.
Immediately add all of the remaining ingredients (except the garnish) and 1 1/4 cup of water. Stir once, bring to a boil, and reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cover lightly, enough so that some steam will cook the top layer of vegetables. You don't want to serve raw eggplant. Or potatoes.
Without stirring, cook until the vegetables are quite tender. If necessary, add a bit more water but no more than a couple tablespoons at a time.
When the vegetables are done, remove the lid, raise the heat slightly, and cook until the liquid is gone and you hear a frying/sizzling sound on the bottom of the pot. You can probe the bottom a little with a spoon to see what is going on. We aren't looking for burned food--when you can feel a little bit of crust forming, turn off the heat and allow to sit for 5 minutes. Then stir it all together, garnish, and serve.