bharta (also written as bhurta, vorta, bhorta and Barthaamong other variations) is a happy family of spiced, shredded vegetable dishes particularly popular in northern India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
Aloo ka bharta uses potatoes, Shalgam ka bharta turnip, while today’s topic, baingan ka bharta, is a flame-smoked aubergine mush. Mallika Basu calls it “the mother of all bhartas,” while Romy Gill says in her book Zaika that baingan ka bharta with dal and roti “would be my ultimate desert island dish.” Silky, flavorful with tomato and onion, and with a deliciously burnt edge, it’s, as Maunika Gowardhan notes, a deceptively easy recipe and “home cooking at its finest.”
Gowardhan says the secret of Baingan Ka Bharta’s magic is “the way the eggplants are cooked. Charring over an open flame develops a smoky, earthy flavor that lingers.” In her book Indian Kitchen: Secrets of Indian Home Cooking, she, like most people, recommends blackening them over an open flame for best results, whereby Saira Hamilton suggests a grill as an alternative in My Bangladesh Kitchen and Rick Stein suggests a very hot overhead grill in his book India. Basu bakes her aubergines in a hot oven before charring them on a gas flame, which is less fiddly but more energy-intensive, while Meera Sodha frys them and then smokes the finished result by pouring a hot charcoal over it with a little oil and douse some leave for minutes.
Each one of them is enjoyable, but the most emphatic smoky results come from those cooked on a grill or over a gas flame. If you don’t have either of those things (or don’t feel like cleaning them afterwards), I’d recommend an overhead grill as the next best thing. If you don’t have one, then do as Meera did in Fresh India, although you must first beg, borrow, or steal (please don’t steal) a piece of charcoal.
Chef Sanjeev Kapoor advises that “it’s easier to remove the charred skin of a roasted eggplant if it’s dunked in water right after roasting,” although Roopa Gulati recommends leaving a few patches of skin on “for added flavor.” Tip reiterated by Harneet Baweja in the Gunpowder cookbook, which suits me as a naturally sloppy cook. (Baweja also warns against throwing away the aubergine’s seedy pit. If you do, you might want to consider not doing it, although I’ve never heard of such a thing.)
Whichever way you go, the eggplants need to be soft enough to mash with a fork or spoon, and preferably thoroughly black and blistered on the outside so they look more like charred remains than something you want to eat. Smaller examples will cook through faster, so go for these if you have the choice.
The Supporting Actors
Although aubergines take center stage, chef Kapoor explains in his book How to Cook Indian: “This North Indian dish is as much about the sweetness of onions and the spiciness of tomatoes as it is the smoky flavor of roasted aubergines”. His version uses a lot more onions than the others I try — he uses five red onions for each eggplant (which matches the sweetness of the Indian pink onion better than the harder yellow variety). Far from overpowering the aubergine, they make a great contrast to its mild bitterness as well as the more tart flavor of the tomatoes. (Sodha calls for white onions, which again are milder than the yellow variety, presumably for the same reason.)
Whenever possible, use fresh tomatoes instead of canned tomatoes, because their spiciness is key — if yours are a little underwhelming, you might want to add a teaspoon of tomato puree, like Gowardhan did: just enough to make the fresh fruit stand out rather than turn it into one Tomato sauce.
Kapoor’s bharta is very simple – just eggplant, onion, tomato, chilli powder and coriander leaves – and shows that you don’t need many ingredients to make great things here. The common pairing of garlic and ginger adds to the depth of flavor, however, and I enjoy the herbaceous warmth of the common green chiles versus the dry fire of the chili powder.
herbs and spices
Cumin, ground coriander, and turmeric are common additions in the recipes I try, but I love the garam masala that Gulati uses in her book India: The World Vegetarian, a mix that tends to mix the first two with like to contain cinnamon and cardamom to bring out the sweetness of the onions.
A final handful of chopped cilantro and a squeeze of Gulati and Hamilton lime juice for freshness finishes it off nicely.
Any other business
Ambica Aggarwal, whose recipe Stein includes in his book, cooks their bainghan ka bharta in mustard oil, which gives it a real kick, while Gulati and Baweja use ghee, the richness of which I find irresistible. If you have any and eat dairy I would prefer the latter, but neutral oil seems to be the more common and cheaper choice.
Serve, as Gill suggests, with roti and dal, or with Sodha’s rice, or buttery naan and yogurt, or with Gowardhan’s rice and dal, or as part of a thali. Or with fried potatoes or baguette or whatever you like, because this dish can never be less than delicious.
Perfect Baingan Bharta
preparation 10 mins
Cook 40 mins
2 medium eggplants (approx. 650g)
3 tbsp gheeor neutral oil
3 red onionspeeled and sliced
20 g ginger rootpeeled and finely grated
2 cloves of garlicpeeled and crushed
2 small green chilliesslit lengthways
½ tsp garam masalaplus extra to serve
4 medium tomatoesroughly chopped
1 handful of fresh corianderto serve
1 limeto serve
Place the aubergines on the gas burner of the hob or on a grill and let them become very soft and blackened. Turn them periodically with heatproof tongs to ensure they cook evenly.
Alternatively, blacken under a hot grill. Either way, once it’s blackened all over and soft inside, let it cool until it’s sufficient to handle.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat and sauté the onions until soft and limp, stirring with a pinch of salt.
Stir in the ginger, garlic, and chilies, cook, stirring, for about another minute, then add the garam masala and tomatoes, and cook until the tomatoes soften.
Scoop the aubergine flesh out of the skins (don’t worry if you get a little skin in there too, it just adds to the flavor).
Put the aubergines in the pan. Mash with a wooden spoon or similar until smooth, then simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated.
Meanwhile, roughly chop the coriander.
Stir in the chopped coriander and some more garam masala if you like, squeeze in the lime juice, also to taste, then check the seasoning and adjust if necessary. Serve with rice or flatbread.