This recipe is from northeast India, a region integrating the cuisines of both the north and Bengal. Anita Sen, a friend and colleague from our days in Singapore cooked this for me when I visited her in Kolkata (Calcutta) on a rain-chilled night when all Bengalis wrap themselves in shawls to ward off the dreaded cold. We sipped spiced chai over stories of her idyllic childhood growing up in Assam on the tea garden her father managed in the foothills of the Himalayas. She recalled the cool mists, the tea shrubs clinging to the hillsides in neat pruned rows and the meals cooked over glowing embers in a clay oven, adding special flavor in her memories. This dish combines succulent chunks of eggplant with nutty chickpeas in a simple spice mixture (masala) with coconut milk and is a family favorite. She learned this dish from the family cook who was a Buddhist descended from a line of Mogs. They were tribal people from the Chittigong hill tracks in Bangladesh bordering Myanmar taken as galley slaves by the Portuguese and later hired as cooks by the British. This is Bengali in essence but less pungent. The flavor is deeper than the list of ingredients implies. Eggplant and chickpeas are fried with ground spices and slow simmered in coconut milk until the eggplant is tender and falling apart and the chickpeas start to become creamy. The final touch is a to stir in gently fried golden garlic and sliced bits of jalapeño with a garnish of fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves. I prefer the silky texture and mild taste of long slender Asian eggplant, but any type will do, from the small oval ones sold in Indian groceries to the striking mauve and white Pandora Striped Rose or elongated white Casper varieties sold at farmers markets. If using small eggplants halve or quarter them depending on the size.
1 large eggplant or 2-3 slender Asian eggplants (about 1 to 1 1/4 pounds)
1generous tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2-3 small dried red chilies (such as japonés or chile de arbol), snipped in half and seeded
4 tablespoons virgin olive oil, divided use
1 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
One 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and well rinsed
1 cup canned coconut milk (shake the can before opening to mix the top layer of cream into the thinner milk)
Juice of half a freshly squeezed lime (about 2 tablespoons)
6 large or 12 small garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed and coarsely chopped
1 jalapeño, halved lengthwise, seeded and coarsely chopped
Chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves (about 1 tablespoon)
PREPARING THE EGGPLANT. If using a large eggplant cut in half lengthwise. Cut into quarters lengthwise and cut crosswise into 2-inch sections. If using Asian eggplants cut them in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise on the diagonal into 2-inch thick slices. Set aside.
ROASTING AND GRINDING THE SPICES. Heat a small heavy skillet over medium heat. Drop in the coriander seeds, cumin and dried red chiles. Roast until the spices darken a shade and smell fragrant, shaking the pan a few times, about 1 1/2 minutes. Transfer to a small electric coffee or spice grinder and grind until fairly finely powdered, stopping once to scrape down the sides with a small spoon, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape out into a small dish.
COOKING THE EGGPLANT AND CHICKPEAS. Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large wide skillet over medium-low heat. Add the ground spice mixture and fry for about 1 minute, stirring almost constantly with a slotted spoon. Add the eggplant, salt, turmeric, and chickpeas and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring and scraping up from the bottom of the pan almost constantly until the eggplant is encrusted in the spice mixture, about 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk and reduce the heat to low. Cover the pan and simmer until the eggplant is tender and all the liquid is dried up, about 20 minutes. Stir in the lime juice and turn off the heat and keep covered.
FRYING THE GARLIC. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a small heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and reduce the heat to low. Sizzle the garlic, watching carefully and stirring from time to time until starting to become slightly sticky, in about 6 to 7 minutes. Keep frying until starting to become crispy and light golden, about 2 to 3 more minutes. Remove from the heat and stir into the eggplant and chickpea mixture. Keep covered until ready to serve.
GARNISHING THE EGGPLANT AND CHICKPEA CURRY. Stir in the jalapeño and transfer to a serving dish. Garnish with the coriander (cilantro) and serve. Makes 4-6 servings