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Baghare Baingan at Passage to India

Chef Sudhir Seth tweaks an Indian classic without compromising its character.

The origins of this eggplant curry go back at least 300 years. A version existed in the northern India city of Lucknow, where the gravy was thickened with cashews, almonds, and cow's milk. As the dish was carried south, the sauce took on the kick of tamarind and the powerful aroma of curry leaves. Now the baghare has its home in the southern city of Hyderabad, where it's as much a hallmark of the area's cuisine as its famously elegant biryanis.

"Each housewife in India puts her own spin on the baingan," Passage to India chef/owner Sudhir Seth says, fanning the air around a pot of toasting coriander. Seth, who learned to make it in a Hyderabad hotel restaurant, has done some spinning himself, slitting the eggplants before they fry ("Americans don't like mushy vegetables"), adding coconut milk instead of dried coconut to the mixture, and substituting sesame seeds and peanuts for almonds and cashews. He's also chary with his use of green chilies, though he insists the less-fiery baingan is still geared "for an Indian palate."

While the tiny eggplants fry in minutes, the gravy takes time—each nut, each spice must be roasted separately, so the finest grounds don't settle and burn at the bottom of the pan. Seth grinds the toasted peanuts, sesame seeds, cumin, and coriander to a paste. "Stand back," he warns, as he drops torn curry leaves and black nigella seeds into a slick of spittingly hot oil, a technique that imparts an instant spike of flavor. When the spices, coconut milk, and a few spoonfuls of deep-red tamarind come together in a fierce roil, Seth spoons the sauce over the bright-purple eggplants. It makes sense that baingan is a staple in both Hyderabadi weddings and home kitchens. It's at once lavish and warming, subtle and lusty.

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