Keralan Aubergines with Lentils and Tamarind

I found this recipe from ‘The Guardian’ recently, as part of an article suggesting alternatives for storecupboard staples like rice. 

It sounded really delicious – at least, judging by the list of ingredients and photos. I was so looking forward to trying it out! Then I read the recipe.

Yeesh, I don’t even know where to begin! So many mistakes! First of all, it isn’t authentic. This of course can be forgiven, because many ‘Indian’ dishes are actually just Indian-inspired. But mostly, there just was no understanding of how spices should work with lentils or vegetables; of when to add spices; which ones to use; and how to use tamarind!

The recipe calls for tamarind paste, which is readily available in most well-stocked supermarkets. In case you don’t find it, you should be able to order it off Amazon. It’s useful to keep on hand for South Indian dishes as well as Vietnamese and Thai food.

This is really important for you to know: tamarind needs to be cooked (for most dishes)! It can taste revolting otherwise. It’s used in some Indian chutneys without cooking, but very very sparingly, and close attention is paid to making sure there’s enough sweetness to balance out the sour tanginess.

The original recipe has 3-4 teaspoons of the stuff dolloped over the dal as a garnish along with yoghurt and coriander, just before serving. DO NOT DO THIS, it will ruin the taste of your food!

So, without sounding like a holier-than-thou preacher, which I realise is exactly how I’m coming off, I’d like to share my recipe for this with you. I think it’s better, since it’s more flavourful and contains authentic spices, added at the right time. Don’t worry if you don’t have some of these ingredients; I’ve added an ‘option’ note to those ingredients which may be a bit harder to find. You should have most of these ingredients in your fridge so this is a good recipe to have on standby for weeknight dinners!

I hope you like it. Do let me know what you think and apologies for sounding really snobbish about this – I take food very seriously!

Serves 4
3 large or 8–12 baby aubergines

1-2 tsp ghee

1 tsp oil for brushing

2 onions, finely diced

5 garlic cloves, crushed with a 1-inch piece of ginger; or 2 tsp ginger-garlic paste

1 medium-spiced chilli of your choice – I used a small Thai green chilli

100g lentils of your choice – I used urad dal

2 tsp cumin seeds

1-2 tsp coriander powder

5-8 curry leaves, optional

2 tsp tamarind paste

1-2 tsp sugar (or jaggery, if you have it)

Yoghurt and chopped coriander leaves to garnish

For the tarka: 1 tsp ghee, 1 tsp mustard seeds, 5-6 curry leaves, 1 tsp cumin seeds, pinch of asafoetida

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Prick the aubergines all over, brush with a little oil, and roast in the oven for about 30 minutes until they are soft. Once cooked through, remove from the oven and cover the dish with foil. This will allow the aubergines to sweat enough for you to remove the skin, if you would like to. I like to keep it on, as the slight bitter taste goes well with the tanginess of the dal, but this is of course your call!

Wash the lentils 3-4 times to remove any dirt and if you have the time, leave them to soak.

Heat the ghee in a large frying pan, wok or kadai (medium heat). Add the onions and sauté until softened, translucent and a little bit brown. Then add the ginger and garlic, along with the cumin, coriander powder and curry leaves.

Add the lentils to this, stir them around a little to get everything mixed together. Add the tamarind paste and mix.

Increase the heat and add enough water to cover the lentils by about 3-4cm. Keep an eye on this and add more water as necessary. Make sure you keep an eye on this so that the lentils don’t stick to the bottom of the pan!

Once the lentils are cooked – after about 20-30 minutes for most, taste and season accordingly.

I chopped up the aubergines and added them to the dal at this point, but feel free to serve them on top, on the side or however else you want!

Chop the coriander and add to the dal.

Now for the South Indian tarka: in a small frying pan, heat the ghee. When it’s hot, add the spices in this order: mustard seeds, cumin seeds, curry leaves, asafoetida. Add to the dal and enjoy the sound of that sizzle – it means you’ve done it right!

My apologies for the photographs below; I’d set it to manually adjust the shutter speed and didn’t have time to tailor the shots, in case I risked the food getting cold!

Serve with yoghurt, flatbreads like naan or chapatis if you’d like and enjoy!

South Indian tarka of cumin seeds, curry leaves and asafoetida
South Indian tarka of cumin seeds, curry leaves and asafoetida




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