A south Indian eggplant rice called Vangi Bath is one of my favorite ways to cook with eggplants in the summer, when they are at their seasonal best.
Eggplants (brinjals, aubergines) are a soothing vegetable, with their creamy, comforting flavor that melds effortlessly into whatever you cook it with. They are especially delicious when paired with rice and spices; sponge-like as they are they soak up the spices and then melt into the rice. Very likely, the memory of this dish will stay with you long after you've licked up every last bit of it.
Eggplant rice is cooked different ways across India, and where I grew up, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, we make a vangi bhath that has more spices and vegetables, and that is often served at weddings.
The vangi bhat (pronounced with a soft "t") I have for you today is from Tamil Nadu, the land of my in-laws. It is simpler, with fewer ingredients, but no less delicious. And Desi, the resident Tamilian hereabouts, likes it better. 😉
Prepared rice dishes of Tamil Nadu
Tamilians make a variety of what are known as "prepared rice" or "mixed rice" dishes, which include eggplant rice, coconut rice, lemon rice, curd rice, tamarind rice and many more. These are quick meals, meant either for "tiffin" or snacking, or for light meals, and they often also serve as picnic foods: foods you'd take with you on long trips or train rides when eating well is everything.
These prepared rice dishes are usually one-pot, and they also include a small quantity of lentils, which makes them wholesome and nourishing.
Why you'll love Vangi Bath
- It's savory. A special spice mix with just a few ingredients infuses every grain of rice and the eggplant with delicious flavor.
- It's nutritious. Eggplants are one of the healthiest veggies you can eat and with rice they make a wholesome, healthy meal you'll feel good about eating and serving your family.
- It's a one-dish recipe. Although not one pot, because you need a separate pot to cook the rice. But all the health you need is inside this vangi bhat and all you need to serve with it is a poppadum.
- It takes under 30 minutes to make. This dish comes together really quickly, making it a great recipe for the weeknight or weekends when you don't want to spend a long time cooking but would still like to eat well.
- Rice. A white, long grain rice like basmati works best in this recipe as the grains cook up separate, creating a pretty finished dish, and the grains absorb the flavors from the spices well. You can use cooked brown rice with decent results.
- Eggplants: Preferably use skinny Japanese or Chinese eggplants or the small Indian ones, all of which have a thin skin, in this recipe. You can use a large Italian eggplant with acceptable results, but try and use the other kinds if possible.
- Coconut oil. A Tamilian might use sesame oil (which they call gingelly oil) to make most prepared rices, but I like using coconut oil here. partly also because I am more likely to have it on hand. Coconut oil is a terrific flavoring agent in south Indian dishes, and the aroma of curry leaves in coconut oil is probably one of the most appetizing you will ever experience.
- Black mustard seeds. Always wait for them to sputter in the oil.
- Curry leaves. Curry leaves add amazing flavor to prepared rice dishes. They can be harder to source if you don't have access to an Indian store, but try and find them if possible.
- Peanuts: Peanuts or groundnuts are a perfect pairing with eggplants, and a number of Indian eggplant dishes combine the two. Pound them into a coarse powder in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle before use.
- Ingredients for blended spice mix: coriander seeds, black gram dal (urad dal), chana dal (Bengal gram dal) and dry red chili peppers. You can also add turmeric, although it's not necessary.
- Unsweetened coconut shreds. For garnish, you can leave this out.
- Cilantro. Also for garnish.
How to make Vangi Bath
Begin by chopping the eggplant into small cubes (to ensure they cook quickly and evenly) and by cooking the rice using your preferred method.
I cook the rice in the microwave, but you can use the stovetop method of boiling it until done in a large pot of water, like pasta, or use a rice cooker or Instant Pot. You can also use frozen cooked rice, which is now easily available.
While the rice is cooking, roast the blended spice mix ingredients--coriander seeds, chana dal, urad dal and red chili peppers--in a skillet with a little oil.
When they turn a few shades darker and very fragrant, remove them to a plate lined with a paper napkin. Press the napkin over the roasted ingredients to absorb any excess oil and once they cool blend them into a powder in a spice grinder or blender. Set aside.
In the same skillet, add the remaining coconut oil and let it heat before adding mustard seeds. Once the mustard begins to sputter add the curry leaves and saute them for a couple of minutes until they begin to dry up and look crisp.
Add the chopped eggplant and mix well. Add a teaspoon of salt, mix, cover, and let the eggplants cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes or until they are tender and cooked through. Stir several times in between to ensure the vegetables are not sticking to the bottom.
Once the eggplant is tender, turn the heat to low and stir in the peanuts (leave out the peanuts if nut-free). Saute them for a couple of minutes. Then add the rice and the blended masala spice mix.
Mix the rice and spices and veggies well. Use a light touch so you don't mash the rice. Check for salt and add more if needed.
Stir in the coconut, if using, and cilantro.
Make ahead and storage tips
You can make the vangi bath powder or spice mix ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator in an air-tight container for a couple of weeks.
The cooked vangi bath can be refrigerated for up to three days and frozen for longer storage. Freeze in an air-tight, freezer-safe container. Thaw and reheat before eating.
How to serve vangi bath
- Serve with poppadum or south Indian fried crackers called vatrals or vadams.
- A raita like this vegan cucumber raita is also a nice side to the vangi bath.
- You can also just serve it with a lovely Indian pickle, like this homemade lime pickle.
Vangi Bath (South Indian Eggplant Rice)
- 3 cups cooked rice (like basmati or any long-grain rice that will stay separate after cooking.)
- 2 tsp coconut oil (divided)
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 2 sprigs curry leaves
- 1 pound eggplants (Cut into a small, 1-cm dice. Try and use thin-skinned Japanese, Indian or Chinese varieties. You can use the Italian eggplant with acceptable results, but it shouldn't be your first choice).
- ¼ cup peanuts (pounded or processed to a coarse powder. You can leave some larger pieces in for texture. Leave out the peanuts if nut-free.)
- Salt to taste
For the blended masala
- 2 tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 tbsp urad dal (black gram dal)
- 1 tbsp chana dal (Bengal gram dal)
- 2 dry red chili peppers (use only one if sensitive to heat)
- ½ tsp turmeric (optional)
- Heat a teaspoon of coconut oil. Add the masala ingredients to the skillet (except the turmeric). Roast over low to medium low heat until the ingredients are a few shades darker and very fragrant, about five minutes.
- Remove the masala ingredients to a dish lined with a paper towel. Press on them with the paper towel to absorb any oil. Once cool, place them in a spice grinder or blender with the turmeric, if using, and blend into a powder. Set aside.
- Heat the remaining teaspoon of oil and add the mustard seeds. Once they sputter, add the curry leaves and saute them a minute or two until they begin to look crispy.
- Add the eggplants along with a teaspoon of salt. Stir to mix, then cover the skillet with a lid, turn the heat to low or medium low, and let the eggplants cook about 5-10 minutes until they are really tender. Stir them several times while cooking to make sure they are not sticking.
- Once the eggplants are cooked, stir in the peanut powder and saute another couple of minutes. Then add the cooked rice and the blended spice powder.
- Mix everything well but use a light touch so you don't end up mashing the rice --the grains should remain separate. Check salt and add more if needed.
- Garnish with cilantro and grated coconut, if using. Serve hot or warm.
- To make this recipe with brown rice, just sub the white rice with cooked brown rice. Use basmati brown rice if possible.
- If nut-free, leave out the peanuts in the recipe. It'll still be delicious.
- If you can't find curry leaves at all, use cilantro, about 2 tbsp, and add it to the skillet at the same time as you would the curry leaves. You can garnish with more cilantro at the end, if you wish.