SRI LANKAN-STYLE BRINJAL CURRY | Ishay Govender, Food Writer and Recipe Developer
Green bean curry. Possibly the bane of my childhood school-lunch existence. My mother knew exactly how to prepare those white bread sandwiches with the right amount of curry leaves, still attached to the stalk to put me off the curry, until well into my early twenties. Now, I dream about my mother’s dry braised green bean curry and sweet-hot carrot pickles.
The unmistakable advantage of currying vegetable dishes is that it provides endless variation to the flavour profiles you can create – mild kormas from the North of India coat veggies in a creamy, rich sauce enhanced by the nuttiness of cashew nuts, red or green Thai coconut curries provide a lime leaf and galangal base that is fragrant and exotic, and the other countries of South East Asia open up the door even further.
Vegetarian meals need not be the ubiquitous boiled spud, steamed mushrooms or one-risotto option found on many restaurant menus. Playing with spices offers opportunities for exciting, flavourful vegetarian dishes.
My Sri Lanka-style brinjal curry is based on a favourite recipe from Rick Stein’s Sri Lankan crab curry, which appears in his beautiful Far Eastern Odyssey (Rick Stein is one of my favourite celebrity chefs; he really understands food, its origins and people). I have made versions of the crab curry with great success and thought the brinjals would stand up to and display these flavours wonderfully.
The bitter nuttiness of fenugreek seeds soften both in flavour and texture as they cook down, melding beautifully with the tamarind-enhanced tang of the tomato gravy (chutney). The heat of the masala and chillis are tempered by the sweet coconut milk. Overall, the dish is fiery (I wasn’t sure if all my guests could handle heat, so I made it fairly moderate as far as bite is concerned) but silky, too. Preparing this dish the night before allows time for the flavours to develop and deepen. Make sure you taste and adjust seasoning as needed, before serving.
2 large brinjals
1 medium onion, finely sliced
2 small bay leaves
2 t fenugreek seeds
1 t cumin seeds
2 green chillis, sliced
2 t black mustard seeds
2-3 t medium-hot masala
5-6 curry leaves
4-5 medium cloves garlic,
2 t garam masala
1 x 400g can chopped,
½ cup water, more
1 t sugar or palm sugar
salt, to taste
2 cm x 2 cm block tamarind
(soaked in a little hot water)
or 1 T tamarind paste
100 ml coconut milk (optional)
40-50 ml vegetable oil
curry leaves or coriander,
steamed basmati rice or rotis,
Slice the brinjal in half lengthways, then slice the halves into 1/2 cm slices and cut each slice in half again lengthways.
Place a large pan over a medium heat and add half the oil. Fry the onion and bay leaves in the oil for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the fenugreek, cumin, chilli, mustard seeds, curry leaves and and fry until fragrant. The mustard seeds will start to pop.
Add the masala and stir, taking care not to let it burn. Add the remaining oil, brinjal and garlic and mix well, increasing the heat. Cook for 4 minutes, stirring.
Add the garam masala, tomatoes and water and mix. Add sugar and salt and reduce the heat to medium. Add the tamarind water or paste and stir well. Cook for until the gravy reduces and the brinjals are softened and almost cooked.
Add the coconut milk, if using, and adjust the seasoning. Cook until tender.
Garnish with curry leaves or coriander and serve with basmati rice or roti.