Long ago, when I hadn’t yet learned how to boil water, I read an article in a Bombay newspaper about the great filmmaker Ismail Merchant and his passion for cooking. The reporter had spent a day with Merchant as he prepped dinner in a Bombay kitchen for friends and his film crew. I don’t remember the details of what he was cooking any more, but I remember that reading about all those sumptuous foods made me long to be there, in that kitchen, eating that food.
So when I came across a hardcover, used copy of the 1994 cookbook, Ismail Merchant’s Passionate Meals: The New Indian Cuisine for Fearless Cooks and Adventurous Eaters, while browsing through Powell’s Books in Portland (said to be the largest used and new bookstore in the world– the flagship store occupies a whole city block), I just had to buy it. Even if it meant lugging it back home in my bursting suitcase.
Merchant, who made visually sumptuous movies like Heat and Dust, The Bostonians, and Howard’s End with his partner, James Ivory, grew up in Bombay. His recipes drew (he passed away a few years ago) from his Indian upbringing, but the spices appeared to be mellowed down to adapt to Western tastebuds. While I am not one to shy away from a full-blown spice experience, Merchant’s recipes sound truly delicious and somewhat different than your traditional Indian offerings. Last night, I decided to try out his Eggplant Pullao, a luxurious-sounding rice dish made with just a handful of ingredients and quite different from the traditional Eggplant Rice (Vangi Bhat) I make.
It was a safe choice, in some respects: eggplant is the top veggie in our home, and anything made with it (and rice) is bound to go down fabulously, no questions asked. And I loved the peanut-eggplant combination too, because it’s such a classic.
I didn’t mean to change the recipe much except to replace the butter with a smidgen of oil, but I did tweak a few other things too: I replaced the sugar with jaggery, because this unrefined Indian sugar has a deep taste that is perfect with the eggplant-peanut pairing, and I reduced the ratio of rice to eggplant so I would have more eggplant in each bite.
I served the eggplant rice with my Tomato-Coconut Cream Curry, one of the first recipes I ever learned to make and one I got from another favorite Indian cookbook author, Vimla Patil. I already have that recipe on the blog and you can find it here.
The meal took less than an hour to put together, and it couldn’t have been more perfect. The nutty eggplant was amazing with the sweet-sour tang of the curry. This is a great weeknight recipe for those times you want something special.
1 tsp canola or other vegetable oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp poppy seeds
2 jalapenos or serranos, cut into rings or finely minced (I keep the seeds, but remove them if you want the dish to be less spicy)
1 tbsp jaggery or regular sugar
1/4 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely powdered
1 medium eggplant, cut into small pieces (Merchant recommends peeling it, but as you know, I never do. Why put in more work for less nutrition?)
1 1/2 cups basmati rice, soaked in water for about 30 minutes, then drained
Salt to taste
Heat the oil in a skillet.
Add the cumin seeds and when they sputter, add the poppy seeds, peanuts, green chilies and jaggery.
Saute until the mixture is toasted and begins to brown, about 2 minutes.
Add the eggplants and mix them well. Now add 3 cups of hot water.
When the water comes to a boil, add the rice. Add salt to taste.
Bring the mixture back to a boil. Then cover with a tight-fitting lid, turn the heat to low, and let the rice cook for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes turn off the heat and let the pullao stand at least another 10 minutes before serving.
To serve, fluff up the rice with a fork, then drizzle over it some Tomato-Coconut Cream Curry.
I wanted to give a shout-out here to the very talented Mints of the blog Vadani Kaval Gheta who sent me the most beautiful table runner (the blue one you see in the Eggplant Pullao pictures) and doilies a few weeks back. I was really surprised to find them in the mail, and absolutely awed by how lovely they are. Best of all, she made them herself. Thanks, Mints– I will cherish these for a long, long time!
Finally, some of you asked for pictures of our trip to the west, so here they are. Many thanks to my enthusiastic photographer, Desi.
Despite about a thousand noisy tourists, including some who found it really amusing to honk with the sea lions, this guy was determined to have his nap in San Francisco Bay. I watched him for a full 15 minutes to see if he would roll over into the bay, but he’d adjust himself ever so often without opening an eye.
Stunning California: We stopped many times along our drive to ooh and aah over the beautiful, picture-postcard landscapes.
Mount Shasta in California: Luminous, Gorgeous, Awe-Inspiring
The beautiful, colorful rotunda of the state capitol building in Sacramento, California
The imposing state capitol in Olympia, Washington.
And the rather unusual, art-deco state capitol building of Salem, Oregon
Oregon was one of the best parts of our trip, with its heady mix of natural beauty and weirdness.
Where it started: Tourists at the first Starbucks ever, in Pike Place, Seattle
Night over Seattle, from the Space Needle
In Vancouver’s Capilano Rainforest, it’s easy to remember the ephemeral quality of time: Ancient Douglas Firs like this 1300-year-old tree shoot more than 200 feet into the sky. One of the rainforest’s chief attractions is a suspension bridge that hangs 230 feet above the Capilano River, swaying just a little with every footstep. And the glass Cliffwalk, a series of narrow, precarious-looking but actually very safe walkways, offers yet another thrill as you explore the forest from way above the treetops.
The Dogs we Met: From German Shepherds to Great Pyrenees, the people of the west coast sure love their dogs. These guys — just a handful of the many, many canines we met on our trip– were always ready and willing to offer a friendly wag and sometimes a kiss, making us miss our kids back home a little more. We even met a couple of intrepid dogs who were calmly walking on the swaying suspension bridge in the Capilano rainforest. Lucy, who hesitates to set foot on the tiniest wooden bridges over shallow streams when we go out hiking, would have had a heart attack!
This last guy was walking off the leash with his mom in Portland (a scenario I can never imagine indulging in with my highly opinionated dogs) and he absolutely refused to be distracted by anything or anyone. Desi tried his best to get some attention by falling to his knees and holding out a hand, but the dog, frankly, didn’t give a damn.