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I have a thing for eggplants. So much so that I had the door of the coffee shop I once owned painted a shiny eggplant purple.
I am not sure where this love comes from. Growing up, eggplant was not on our table as frequently as other vegetables. My father is not very fond of it, and he did the shopping. My mother on the other hand absolutely loved eggplant and would cook it for herself as often as she could. Of course, we would all be made to eat a little bit of it. My sister would drown hers in yogurt, dad would push his around the plate and dilute the eggplant flavor with pickle, chutney, and whatever else he could manage to find to cover it up. Mom and I were the only two with the appreciation for that meaty, slightly astringent yet sweet taste of the vegetable.
Mom came by her love for the vegetable honestly. It was her father’s favorite vegetable and therefore cooked in their home all throughout the season. My grandmother knew that I had inherited that taste and made sure there was always an eggplant dish on the menu whenever I was visiting them.
The one dish that remains a favorite for me and my extended maternal family is Olo. This particular dish is first-cousin to the better-known Baingan Bharta of North India and closely related to Baba Ghanoush as well. However, I feel that it tastes more like the essence of eggplant than the former two.
This may be because, from a very young age, I was part of the ritual of making this dish. Once Mom and Grandma had decided that Olo would be on the menu, an uncle was dispatched, with me in tow, to go pick out fresh eggplants from a nearby farmer. These would be young, globe variety, plucked by hand and put in the cotton shoulder bag along with a nice bundle of freshly dug up green garlic. Once we returned home someone would take over the duty of washing and trimming the garlic. A fire would be lit outside starting with a dried cow dung patty, and grass followed by twigs and finally a log. While we waited for the logs to burn down to coals, small cups of sweet chai would be passed around. One of the aunts would start the millet bread on a clay comal, slathering each with freshly churned butter. Buttermilk would be spiked with a pinch of salt and toasted, crushed cumin, and served with dinner. Once the coals were just right, Mom or Grandmother would roast the eggplants until they were charred, bubbly, and very soft. Any thick skin that remained would be quickly and carefully discarded and the pulp mashed with the fresh green garlic and spices.
That was dinner. Simple, rustic, delicious, and full of family laughter. To this day whenever my maternal cousins and I get together we try to recreate that magic. The old house in the village is long gone, so are Grandma and Mom, and we don’t know any farmers who would allow us to pluck the right sized eggplants right off the plants. But we still light the fire, we still drink small cups of sweet chai. We still eat Olo with millet bread slathered in fresh butter and drink spiced buttermilk. It is always a magical night when we do.
Vishwesh Bhatt is the James Beard Award-winning chef of Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi. His latest cookbook is I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes From a Southern Chef. Get his Olo recipe here.