I may have indicated in previous posts that I am reluctant to deep-fry, or generally to use tons of oil. In part, this is because I think it really has to be worth it to eat something deep-fried. I mean, if I am going to have so much oil, I think I would prefer it to be in the form of red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting, or a Chinatown ice coffee with light cream, or a gigantic slice of pizza from John’s. . . or any number of other sweet and savory treats. Deep fried snacky items just seem like a waste.
But I also have mild PTSD from a deep-frying incident almost three years ago, and that’s the real reason I have to have a good reason to fill a pan with oil, heat it to whatever-hundred degrees, and then throw things into it.
Once, when we were living in Brooklyn, I decided to make kadhi-pakora for dinner. It is one of Ankur’s favorite things to eat at home, and it is a simple, hearty dish. You make a gravy with yogurt and chickpea flour, then you fry some pakoras and soak them in the gravy. It’s comforting and spicy and warm. Maybe one day I’ll make it again.
Kishmish and Pista were at home, playing near the kitchen, as I started heating oil in a big, wobbly wok on the stove. I had already made the batter for the pakoras, so I was just waiting for the oil to get hot. While I was waiting, I decided to reach up to get something — a cookie? a bag of flour? a utensil? I don’t even remember — out of the cabinet right over the stove. Stupidly, I had packed that cabinet with heavy, cumbersome items, one of which (a bottle of soy sauce, if I’m not mistaken) came plummeting out as I opened the cabinet door and splashed down in the middle of the pot of oil. Warm (not hot, thankfully!) oil splashed all over my face and up to the ceiling. It splashed to the wall opposite the stove, and what didn’t hit the floor in the first wave started dripping to the floor from the stuff on the ceiling. It was a terrible, mess, and a mess that Kishmish and Pista ran towards, as toddlers do, as soon as they heard the splash.
Two or three minutes later, I really would have been in big trouble, and the girls would have been, too. Seriously, cooking with oil is just crazy.
When Ankur got home I had cleaned up most of the mess (and moved to Plan B for dinner), but I was still shaken and panicked, and the streaks of oil dripping from the wall were still a little scary and disgusting. I related the story, ending with, “And if the oil had been any hotter I would have ended up like Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram!” Ankur rolled his eyes a little, and I’ll admit it was the wrong comparison to make. I mean, in that movie, Roopa has a much harder life to begin with, and then she’s burned with a frying pan. Plus, she’s not even married — there’s the real difference! I mean really, I can burn my face with hot oil, and what’s actually the worst thing that could happen? It’s not like I would end up alone under a waterfall in a too-short sari trying to entice Shashi Kapoor.
Anyway, all of this is to make a simple point: I don’t take lightly the home-chef decision to fry things in oil. In a way, I think it’s preferable to make samosas, pooris, pakoras, and more in our own home — instead of buying them pre-packaged and fried in who-knows-what poor quality oil. But at least that poor quality oil is splashing on the face of some other person/machine somewhere else (probably in New Jersey).
These eggplant patras (Ankur named them) are inspired by a dish that my friend explained having made for her by her family’s cook in Bombay. I never actually had these made by someone else, and I have yet to present this dish back to my friend for calibration against the original. But according to her, the essential components are as follows: crispy/chewy eggplant slices, asafoetida (hing), and red chillies. I do think I managed to make those flavors come together nicely, with a few additions of my own.
For the eggplant
- 1 medium eggplant
- 2 tablespoons salt
- oil for frying
For the tarka
- 1 cup yogurt (preferably sour, full-fat. Nothing is better than Erivan yogurt — which may only be available in the NY area — unless of course you are making your own)
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 8-10 curry leaves
- 3-5 dried red chillies
- 1/4 teaspoon asafoetida (hing)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1 handful chopped cilantro (optional)
Slice the eggplant into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Too thick, and they will not cook thoroughly. Too thin, and you will end up with something too crispy for this dish.
Place the slices in a colander, salt them, and allow them to sit and sweat for 20-30 minutes.
Rinse off the excess salt, and pat the eggplant slices dry. They have to be very dry! Wet pieces of food dropped into hot oil. . . . well, I am actually still too traumatized to write about that.
Next, evacuate the kitchen! No small, curious children! No watching/helping mommy to cook! Close the cabinets securely. Put on an apron to protect your clothes from the inevitable splatters.
Heat some oil in a kadhai or other deep pan. I guess you could use a deep fryer, if you have that sort of thing. Slide a few eggplant slices into the oil and let them fry. If you tend to skimp on oil, like I do, then you may have to flip the slices a few times. Aim for slightly browned with a crispy skin. That is, the slices on the left are a little bit too done — but they still work, given the following steps.
While still warm, arrange the eggplant slices on a plate. Whisk together the yogurt and salt, and pour over the top. You don’t have to use all the yogurt; use an amount that you like.
Then make the tarka. Put the tablespoon of oil in a small pan, and heat it over a medium flame. Add the mustard seeds and cook until they are almost finished spluttering, but not burned. Then add the red chillies, hing, and curry leaves. Stir them around for about 1 minute. Again, you don’t want these ingredients to burn.
Pour the tarka over the eggplant slices and yogurt. Garnish with chopped cilantro, if desired, and eat right away.