Begun bhaja literally means “fried brinjal/eggplant” in Bengali. It is one of the simplest preparations in the Bengali repertoire and one of the most quintessential. A meal comprising just dal and rice and a few slices of begun bhaja is an excellent meal indeed. Well, I say that now. As I’ve noted before, I did not actually eat brinjal/eggplant till just a few years ago. But it is also true that even in my most baingan-phobic youth I always liked the taste of begun bhaja and would eat small bits of the non-seedy parts of the flesh along with the crispy, almost smoky peel. Now I am older and wiser and enjoy all of it.
In its simplest form, all this dish requires is baingan, salt, haldi, red chilli powder and oil. The version I make most often adds only one ingredient to the above, probably making it less quintessentially Bengali in the process. That ingredient is amchur or dried mango powder. Some people add some sugar to the mix as well (the love of sugar is a sickness among us Bengalis); some also add flour; I’ve sometimes sprinkled some rava/sooji/semolina over right before frying. I like these fine as variations but most often come back to the simple version in this recipe.
More important than those optional additions is the oil. Ideally, the oil should be pungent mustard oil. Let’s face it, the baingan is going to soak up some oil and the flavour of mustard oil adds a lot. That said, you’re not going to be disappointed if you make it with a neutral oil either.
Okay, let’s make some begun bhaja. The recipe is minimalist so please read the notes.
- A globe eggplant cut into disks 1/2″ or so in thickness (do not peel the eggplant)
- Haldi/turmeric powder
- Red Chilli Powder
- Mustard oil (or oil of choice)
- Rub both sides of each eggplant disk with a pinch each of salt, haldi, red chilli powder and amchur. Massage the spices in nicely and set the marinated disks aside on a plate for at least 30 minutes. You want the salt to draw moisture out of the eggplant. Do not, however, pat this moisture away—you want it to mix with the marinade to form a light coating.
- In a skillet just large enough to hold 2-4 of the disks at a time, heat the mustard oil over medium heat till it is just smoking.
- Add the disks gently into the oil, reduce the heat to medium-low and fry for 3-4 minutes per side till the peel and the tops of the disks are crisp. Be careful not to scorch/burn them.
- Remove to a plate lined with paper towels and dab the tops gently to absorb some more oil.
- Serve hot and crisp along with rice and dal (either this mushoor dal or this moog dal are good choice). It also goes very well with khichuri/khichdi.
- I know that the ingredients list must seem maddeningly vague on amounts. The reason I am being vague is that it is hard to predict exactly how much you need of the marinade as it really depends on the diameter of your eggplant and how thick you cut it (i.e how many disks you end up with). You want to smear the entire surface on both sides of each disk and a that will depend largely on how wide or small your disks are. A small pinch of each for each side will do it.
- Keep in mind that even if you were to simply fry disks of eggplant to a crisp with just salt you’d be ahead of the game. How much of the other things you add is really up to you. The two most important things are the salt and the haldi (you want that golden-brown colour). Don’t overdo the red chilli powder—it’s meant mostly to add some piquancy, not to dominate. Ditto for the amchur if you use it.
- Try to choose an eggplant that is not too bulbous around the middle—go for one that is as uniform in its thickness as possible. This is because you want to use as small a skillet as possible. You need to add enough oil to come up most of the way up the eggplant disks when you put them in; if you have very wide disks then you’ll need a larger skillet and will have to use that much more oil.
- 1/2″ thick is a good place to start. The goal is to cook the inside to a melting softness while the surfaces become crisp but does not scorch. With thicker disks you’ll have to calibrate time and heat more carefully. I’d avoid thinner as there’s a decent chance they’ll begin to fall apart as you remove them from the skillet.
- As for the suggested time, use it as a guide. Much depends on how thickly you’ve sliced your disks, how hot the oil is and so on. The eggplant should sizzle when you add it to the oil—I’d say three minutes from that point per side is probably the minimum but use tongs and check what it looks like after two. And remember you can flip more than once. I usually tend to flip at 3 minutes for 1/2″ thick disks, do another three minutes and then flip again for 30 seconds to a minute per side if they need further crisping up. Your eyes are the best timer.
- The most important thing to remember is that no matter what you do—as long as you don’t get your oil too hot—it’s going to be very hard to go wrong. Make it a few times and you’ll figure it out to your own liking.
- Finally, you don’t even have to be limited to globe eggplants. If you have long Japanese eggplants or similar cut each one in half across the center and then cut each half into two long pieces, marinade and proceed as above. It’s what I’ll be doing with the Japanese eggplants I’m growing in my garden (if the raccoons leave me any).