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Meeting of the Twain: Dahi Baigan

How two of the oldest ingredients known to mankind came together to create one of the coolest Odia summer treats – and versions elsewhere. 

By Madhulika Dash 

 

By all ayurvedic accounts and those of a few health specialists the combination of dahi and eggplant will be flagged as an absolute no good, even dangerous for many. The reason: eggplant is from the night-shade family and is high in glycoalkaloid properties or natural pesticides that give them the slight bitter taste and combining it with the otherwise healthy, wholesome curd can cause major disturbance in the digestive system. 

Another reason for this is also their respective nature – while eggplant is cooling in nature and hence has earned its prime spot in many summer dishes across India, curd, another summer-day favourite, is hot. Hence, mixing of the two doesn't make much wellness sense. Does it?! 

Not in the world of cooking though where the combination has not only flourished in various formats – from dahi baigan in Odisha to Kebab Alinazik in Turkey – and has also mused other delicious creations including other night-shade peers like the raita, dahi-aloo to name a few. 

So how did the combination get past the stringent diktats of wellness on which most of the Indian cuisine has been built? 

 

The Original Tastemaker

Sadly, there isn't a rebellious chef story as to how dahi baingan (spelled with an extra 'a' in the end) came to the fore. The earliest mention of use of curd and baigan, also called Vartaku by the Mundas who as per ancient text were the first to grow the wild fruit as edible purple shade vegetable, in a dish comes from King Nala's Pakadarpana. The 8,000 year old tome dedicated to recipes of the one of the original Indian master chefs (Bhima from Mahabharata is considered to be the other)  has close to 20 eggplant recipes with one that uses curd as a flavouring. 

According to the book, the Bhantaki (eggplant in Sanskrit) recipe instructs the maker to “Cut eggplant into small pieces and put in hot water. Remove from the water and keep it in a clean vessel. Powder black pepper, cumin and coriander and add to this powder fully ripe tamarind, mango powder and curd. Mix well. Coat the eggplant pieces with this paste. In a separate vessel heat a little ghee and fry the spiced eggplant pieces. Take off the flame and add flowers and camphor for fragrance. Wrap it in areca palm leaves and sauté in hot ghee.” 

As one of the earliest wild fruits to be tamed for production, baigan was a rather popular produce that was had as a vegetable and also used as a flavourant, especially when it came to cooking meat dishes like Kavachandi. Made with finely chopped mutton, flavoured with powdered spices and grains and shaping them into tiny balls, called vataka, the size of jujube fruit and deep fried, this medieval Indian dish was an all time popular treat across tables. 

Even the Ramrochak tarkari that popularised the use of lentil dumplings was another example of how essential the presence of baigan was in the traditional Indian culinary lexicon. Such was the popularity that Srila Prabhupada had once remarked that 'brinjal is just an excuse to eat ghee'.

 

The Baigan Fight 

But brinjal, a bona fide nightshade vegetable, did come with its own virtues to make it one of the popular food ingredients in ancient and medieval India – much like its dish peer, Curd. Once cooked – which is boiled, steamed, fried or roasted - the once wild fruit lost most of its bitter properties and anti nutrients and became rich in antioxidants, minerals and vitamins which made it a part of the balanced meal, especially in the form of bharta, which even today is considered an effective way to activate the natural nutrients. 

These properties could be further accentuated with the thoughtful addition of another ingredient. In fact as per Antya lila of Caitanya-caritamrta nimba-vartaki, today more popular as the Bengali neem-begun, remains an excellent example of food that heals.

Of course, even when hailing the goodness of nimba-vartaki it came with a cautionary note of using the right kind of eggplant and frying it in the right fat, which was often ghee or mustard oil. The reason for this was the alkaloids in eggplant that can trigger toxic and psychotropic effects including allergies like itching of skin and throat, hives, wheezing and  mood altering because of the seeds. One of the many reasons that even today baigan with smaller seeds are preferred for cooking vis a vis those with big, biteable ones. 

 

The Affair Begins

Unlike eggplant that had – and continues to have – its share of controversies, curd remained the Good Boy of the wellness world, where it was hailed as next to nectar of wellness. Easy on the stomach with probiotic properties it was an all-season antidote both in its heavy, rich form as well as the sour or spiced beverage known as buttermilk. Thanks to its versatile palate play and the ability to tenderise and emulsify, curd became a flavouring staple much before salt came to the fore.

Curd was used to give dishes body, balance the flavours and even marinate. A fermenting agent, it was a staple for most grain-based breads and dishes. For those residing in mountain regions, it was the proverbial cooking water that blended itself beautifully to any dish – whether it was the kadhi or the madra or chha gosht. In the mainland, though the buttermilk and curd worked mostly as their standard self, there were a few dishes that they played a role in like raita, and Odia Dahi Baigan among others. 

While most dishes that used curd, especially in kormas or quorma, the usage was mostly for the rich, velvety taste and the pucker up flavour that curd could lend with ease – even when generously spiced – there were a few exceptions where dahi played a more significant role  like in Kashmiri Dodh Wagun, the Afghani dish inspired Bhopali Burani Baigan, Kathiyawadi Ringa No Olo and the Maharastra Vangyache Bharit to name a few. While most dishes where eggplant and curd played the lead roles were an ode to bharta or the style, there were a few outliers of this rule like the Odia Dahi Baigan. 

 

Aside from the fact that it has eggplant and curd in prime roles, the beauty of the popular summer side dish is the way it is made. While most recipes tow the regular line of cooking a dish, the Odia Dahi Baigan is designed as a gourmet style raita or a dip, where brinjal plays the flavorant to the curd rather than the other way round. 

This peculiar detail makes it one of the most fascinating dishes amongst all, it also helps us dwell into the ancestry where brinjal was used more as a tastemaker rather than an ingredient. A rough estimate could be around the late ancient and early medieval period where such combinations had become acceptable, and a ruse would have been found to negate the disturbance that this combination could lead to. 

In fact, both brinjal and curd were such essential ingredients through the agrarian community of India that it would be imperative for science to find a way to make brinjal more palpable to all combinations, including curd, which was readily available in every household. A read of old horticulture text shows the way brinjal became the vegetable that was worked upon most, but how the self- evolving wild fruit grew differently in different parts of the country – not just in size but in colours too. 

So for instance, most brinjals available today in Odisha are green in colour or one with a purple tinge to what the Mundas grew back then. As agriculture evolved so did the nightshade produce quality which today comes with seeds that are smaller than a grain of local rice. Thus, to some extent addressing the issues around eggplant. But the main gamechanger for brinjal was the techniques that helped make this otherwise nutritious produce edible to all. 

 

The Brilliance of Dahi Baigan 

Unlike other dahi peers where the curd is cooked, in Dahi Baigan, the curd is only seasoned and whipped to a fluffy consistency with water added as necessary. The rest of the tastemaking happens with the brinjal, which is first fried in ghee or mustard oil after being marinated in turmeric, chilli powder and salt, and then seasoned with panch phoran, hing and curry leaves. Once it is cooled, the eggplant is added to the curd and served. In the Turkish version however, the curd is spread over a wedge of baked eggplant. 

Miraculously, this delayed way of tempering the curd not only disturbs the composition of the curd but also ensures that the dish is a delightful way to get the goodness of both the brinjal and the dahi – making it one of the best summer palate treat to have along with rice dal. A proof that this dish has passed the traditional wellness muster is dahi baigan’s inclusion into many ritualistic feasts. In fact, it is part of most Abhada food (temple prasad) that one finds across in Odisha. 

A popular niramish dish, dahi baigan, over the years, has had many renditions that include using basera (mustard paste) to flavour the curd to even ambula (dry mango) and grated fresh coconut to give it a better palate play, nothing beats the original Dahi Baigan, which brings in the fermented goodness along with the nutritive moneybag of brinjal in one tasteful bowl along with the goodness of the spices. 

Little wonder that even royalty couldn't stay far from the cooling charms of a dahi baigan, which forms an integral part of the Mayurbhanj thali today. Which brings us to the question – did dahi baigan, the revolution lad of Odia culinary ledger, muse the creation of Dahi Machcha, another no-no as per traditional science? That is for another story...