I used to say the best aubergine dishes can be found in Indian cuisine, but after discovering this Sri Lankan curry, I am no longer sure… I know this plate doesn’t look particularly attractive, but believe me, it’s one of the best vegetable dishes I have ever eaten. It’s rich in spices, light, but slightly creamy, the aubergines are still a bit firm and the tamarind’s presence gives this typical addictive tangy twist I love, particularly in the summer. As for the big fat slices of garlic…. all I can say is I’ll put twice as much of these next time!
This recipe comes from the beautifully edited Sri Lanka. The Cookbook by Prakash N Sivanathan & Niranja M Ellawa. It’s a rather recent buy, but until now everything I have cooked from this book was absolutely delicious and, contrary to what I used to think, every dish had something different from what I would recognise as Indian cuisine(s), in both flavours and techniques. This being said, the good news is that if you cook Indian from time to time, you will probably have already all the necessary spices in your kitchen, since most Sri Lankan seasoning ingredients are the same (apart from pandan leaves, for example, but these don’t appear everywhere).
This curry tastes best now, when aubergines are in season, and even though the word “curry” might make you think it’s a heavy, calorie-loaded dish, actually it’s quite light and summery because – and it’s a recurrent element in this book – the sauce is rather “thin” (and of course you can reduce, just like I did, the amount of coconut milk) and also thanks to its tanginess I consider perfect for hot weather. As always, I have slightly changed the ingredients’ amounts and the procedure, so make sure you check the original and discover this wonderful cuisine through the recipes presented by Prakash N Sivanathan & Niranja M Ellawa
TIPS: As I have mentioned, if you cook Indian from time to time, you will probably have all the necessary dry ingredients to prepare this dish.
Tamarind can be found in practically every Asian grocery (I’ve seen it in a Vietnamese shop, an Indian shop and a Thai shop) or bought on internet. Don’t skip it and don’t think it can be easily replaced with lime for example (at worst you can of course put some lime juice at the end, but you will obtain a tangy dish without the tamarind’s distinct flavours).
You can buy tamarind in a block that dissolves in hot water or a ready to use tamarind pulp in a jar. I prefer the dried block because it tastes better and keeps literally for years in the fridge. A piece of the block must be placed in boiling water and, after 15 minutes you have to strain it, squeezing well the solid parts. The tamarind pulp in a jar doesn’t keep forever (I had to throw away half of the jar once) and it’s not as tangy as the “juice” made from the pulp. It’s quicker to use though. I have no idea what is the pulp equivalent in this dish (or any dish I make), so I can only advise adding it gradually and adjusting the taste to your preferences.
If you cannot get fresh curry leaves, skip them. Dried curry leaves are tough (impossible to eat afterwards, while they are supposed to be eaten, unlike bay leaves, for example) and lose the majority of their aroma. Curry leaves freeze very well, especially if vacuum packed or very tightly wrapped in plastic film, but I’ve never seen them frozen in shops… so if you get hold of them, freeze them in small portions tightly wrapped or, even better, vacuum packed. If you live in the US: I’ve seen some people grow curry leaf trees and sell fresh leaves on internet.
Preparation: about 1 hour
Ingredients (serves 3-4 as a side-dish):
2 medium Western aubergines our 6-7 small Asian (long ones)
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds (I have used black)
a small handful of picked fresh curry leaves
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
2 small medium-hot green chillies (found in Indian or Sri Lankan shops) or other green medium-hot chilies
3 big shallots or 1 big onion
8 medium garlic cloves
5 cm square of tamarind block dissolved in 200 ml (about 3/4 cup) hot water and strained (see the TIPS above)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon chilli powder (or more/less); I have used 2 teaspoons Kashmiri chilli powder which is not very hot but has a beautiful red colour
salt to taste
100 ml (about 3 1/2 oz) coconut milk (I have used recently 60 ml and it was delicious too)
Cut the aubergines into bite-sized pieces (while cutting put the pieces into a bowl filled with water, so that they don’t change their colour too much).
Cut the chillies lengthwise and then horizontally (in half or more, depending on the length; you should obtain 2, max 3 cm pieces/roughly 1in pieces).
Slice thickly garlic cloves (I have cut each into 4-5 thick slices).
Cut the shallots into thin slices.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a pan and stir-fry the aubergines at medium heat until they are slightly browned.
Take them off the pan and put aside.
Add one more tablespoon oil into the same pan and stir-fry mustard seeds. When they start popping, add the curry leaves, the cumin and fenugreek seeds.
After 1 minute add the green chilli, the shallots and stir-fry them at medium heat until the shallots are soft and start browning.
Now add the garlic and stir-fry for one more minute.
Take the pan off the heat, add the powdered spices and mix well.
Pour the tamarind water and the coconut milk and let all simmer until 1/3 of the liquid evaporates (or until the sauce is thick enough for you; I preferred it rather thick/dry).
Finally, add the aubergines, season the curry with salt and give it a good stir.
Warm up for about five minutes.