The Bengali meal, when allowed to showboat in all its unabated complexity, is a grandiose, multi-course affair. For very special occasions, one might be served 12 to 15 courses. But for the less spectacular, everyday meal, one would be served at least four courses, with rice holding court as the queen, without which the other dishes cannot pay homage.
Today’s post is about an accompaniment to the dal course (dal might fall first or fourth in the order of courses, depending on how elaborate a meal is served). It is about the transformation of a seemingly innocuous vegetable and about the elevation of the humble dal. I am of course referring to Begun Bhaja or Deep Fried Eggplant, an undisputed favorite, no matter how simple or elaborate the meal. The eggplant can be sautéed simply in oil with a little salt but my favorite version is fried in besan (or Bengali: বেসন beshon), which is the Bengali word for chick-pea (garbanzo bean) flour, also called gram flour.
Chickpea flour is known as socca in France and farinata in Italy. Bob’s Red Mill makes a version too, but I’ve read that it tastes different than gram flour. Web foodies hypothesize that it is probably made with a different kind of garbanzo bean and therefore doesn’t behave in quite the same way as gram flour.
While begun bhaja and dal go together like fish and chips, the begun bhaja is also a dish unto itself, more than simply an accompaniment. It is the starter for lunch with luchi, cholar dal and mangshor jhol, it provides rainy day comfort with khichuri, and offers the simplest of pleasures with buttered rice.
Begun Bhaja or Deep Fried Eggplant
When the discussion of how Indian restaurant food never tastes like Bengali food comes up at a dinner party – and it occasionally does – begun bhaja is always requested, always receives the most votes for “this should be on the appetizer menu.” I once had begun bhaja at a tapas restaurant in Chicago, as part of a fried vegetable platter, and all those conversations came rushing back to me. With a crispy exterior, the inside soft and meltingly rich, the traditional begun bhaja is very easy to make.
1 cup dry besan
1/2-2/3 cup water
Salt to taste
Pinch of turmeric (optional)
In a mixing bowl wide enough to dredge the eggplant, measure the besan and gradually add water, mixing with a fork, until a batter is formed. It should be the consistency of a thinnish pancake batter. If the mixture is too thick, the besan will not be as crispy. Too thin, and it won’t adhere to the eggplant. Add salt to taste, and turmeric or cayenne pepper if desired. Set aside.
Slice eggplant into rounds a little more than ¼ inch but no more than ½ inch thick. Cut each round into half-moon shapes. Sprinkle with salt and toss. Some also like to add a sprinkle of sugar for balance, doing so is a matter of personal preference. Don’t salt too far in advance; otherwise, the eggplant will release too much water, which will create challenges when frying.
In a wok or pan suitable for deep frying, heat 1 inch of vegetable or canola oil. Test by adding a drizzle of besan. It should sizzle vigorously. The oil needs to be hot.
Dredge the eggplant in the besan and gently place into the hot oil. Do not crowd the eggplant. Fry at medium-high for 3-4 minutes on one side, when golden-brown, flip and fry another 3-4 minutes. Remove onto paper towels to soak up any excess oil.
Done. Serve with dal and rice or eat them as soon as they are cool enough to pop into your mouth.