Archana Pidathala's Vankaya bajji or bashed aubergine chutney
An introductory essay, and a recipe for Venkaya Bajji. Text and photographs by Archana Pidathala.
A Vittles subscription costs £5/month or £45/year. If you’ve been enjoying the writing then please consider subscribing to keep it running — it will give you access to the whole Vittles back catalogue — including Vittles Restaurants, Vittles Columns, and Seasons 1-6 of our themed essays.
Welcome to Vittles Recipes! In this new weekly slot, our roster of six rotating columnists will share their recipes and wisdom with you. This week’s columnist is Archana Pidathala. You can read our archive of cookery writing here.
“I cook to hold my memories in my body”
An introductory essay and a recipe for Vankaya Bajji or bashed aubergine chutney. Text and photographs by Archana Pidathala.
It is spring when we arrive in Barcelona, the air laden with the heady scent of jasmine and orange blossoms. We moved here from Bangalore, for my husband’s work and our son’s love of football, our lives packed into twelve boxes. ‘Why did I uproot my life?’ I ask myself repeatedly in the aftermath of moving five thousand miles from home.
In our first few weeks, I have transplant shock. My hair starts to fall out and turns silver faster than it should. I lose my desire to eat. I feel loneliness crash inside me like gigantic waves. Nothing – not the deep blue sea, pink skies, or historical markets I witness – could have prepared me for this.
On a very muggy day in July, after putting it off for months, I finally begin to unpack. Halfway through, I spot my grandmother’s cookbook wedged between the pressure cooker and cast-iron pan. I abandon everything and stay up reading late into the night, as if the book were a guide to settling into a new city, a new continent. In the book, I see the lanes of my childhood: here is my grandmother dictating recipe after recipe after recipe to me on a summer afternoon; here we are, the five grandchildren, sitting cross-legged on the floor, knees bumping, eagerly waiting for ammama to feed us. I slowly begin to cope the only way I know: by taking myself to the kitchen. Like always, I cook because I want to eat my memories – to hold them in my body a little longer in this place far from home.
The kitchen I inherit in our rented apartment is newly refurbished, with a flameless stovetop, a touch-sensor kitchen tap, and a seventy-page instruction manual. I feel unreasonably frustrated, nostalgic for my tiny, old-school Bangalore kitchen, in which I cooked nearly every day for fourteen years. I also feel like a fraud, having confessed, in my recent book, my desire to live off the grid – without refrigeration, electricity, or running water. All I want is to live simply and sustainably, somewhere familiar, without worrying about all the mechanics of the kitchen that now runs my life.
To reconcile my fantasy with the reality of my life, I fill my mornings with the smell of south Indian filter coffee and cook my grandmother’s three dozen aubergine recipes on repeat. Slowly, I taste my way out of feeling unsettled, scenting the backdrop of every meal with rice and ghee.
On the day I cook this vankaya bajji, I wake up craving something earthy. When I go looking for aubergines, I realise that the word ‘aubergine’ comes via the Catalan word ‘albergínia’. I find kinship in a place that loves aubergines as much as I do. I make vankaya bajji from memory: cooking chunks of aubergine in olive oil with onions, tomatoes, tamarind, curry leaves, and lots of chillies, bashing everything up and pouring over a tadka of garlic and onion, with their raw, pungent edge still intact.
The rest of my boxes still remain unpacked, and my new kitchen and its ways still distant, but I realise that I can cook this bajji and come home to myself.
Venkaya Bajji or bashed aubergine chutney
Note: In South-Asia, a ‘chutney’ has many forms, and does not imply a sweet condiment or side. The Vankaya bajji is a comforting, zesty chutney to eat with rotis, or any other flatbread, crisps and rice.
Time: 30 mins
20g ball tamarind, soaked in 50ml hot water for 15 mins, or 1½ tsp tamarind paste
2 medium-large or 5 small aubergines (around 500g in total), coarsely chopped into 2–3cm chunks (if chopping everything ahead, put the chunks in a bowl of salted water to prevent discolouration)
4 tbsp olive oil (or any neutral oil you have)
2 small onions, coarsely chopped
3 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
5–6 green or red chillies, split in half lengthways (adjust according to spice tolerance)
2 tsp salt
½ tsp turmeric powder
1-2 tsp chilli powder (as per spice tolerance)
1 tbsp sesame seeds, dry roasted and coarsely ground
2 tsp jaggery powder or brown sugar
5–6 fresh curry leaves
for the tadka
2–3 tbsp sunflower oil (or any neutral oil you have)4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
½ tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp de-husked, split Bengal gram (chana dal or split chickpeas)
½ tsp de-husked, split black gram (urad dal or split urad lentils)
2 dried red chillies
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
8–10 fresh curry leaves
1–2 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped
rice or flatbread
If using the tamarind ball, start by soaking it in 50ml hot water for 15 mins while you chop the rest of the ingredients.
Heat 4 tbsp oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over a medium-high heat. Add the aubergines, onions, tomatoes, green or red chillies, salt, turmeric, and chilli powder, then cover and cook for 4–5 mins, until the aubergines begin to soften.
If using the ball of tamarind, mash it by hand and sieve the liquid into a bowl, squeezing the tamarind to extract as much of the liquid and pulp as possible. Reserve the tamarind extract in the bowl, and discard the fibre and seeds left behind in the sieve.
Add the tamarind extract or paste, ground sesame seeds, jaggery or sugar, and curry leaves to the pot. Give everything a good mix, cover, and cook for another 7–8 mins, or until the aubergine is completely soft. Stir once or twice during the cooking time, and add a splash of water if you find the aubergines are sticking to the pot. Take the pot off the heat, and mash well with a wooden masher until everything comes together into a delicious, thick chutney-ish mess. Taste and add salt if needed.
To make the tadka, heat the oil in a small, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat until smoking hot. Add the garlic and sauté for 20 seconds. Add the mustard seeds, then, when they splutter, add the Bengal gram, black gram, dried chillies, onion, and curry leaves. Sauté for another 30–40 seconds, until the lentils change colour and are cooked through. Pour the tadka over the vankaya bajji and mix together.
Serve hot or at room temperature, garnished with fresh coriander, with rice or any flatbread and some ghee, if you like. Some crisps and a dollop of yogurt on the side are always welcome too.
You can use other vegetables in this recipe, including pumpkin, squash, or bottle gourd – but make sure to adjust the cooking time accordingly.
This dish will keep in the fridge for a couple of days. Reheat gently to serve.
While the tadka does elevate the flavour, in a pinch you could skip it and the dish would still be delicious.
If you can’t get your hands on fresh curry leaves, you can try using fresh dill instead in the vankaya bajji. But leave them out of the tadka completely, and use them as a garnish.
Archana Pidathala (@archana.pidathala) is a writer and publisher based in Barcelona.Her first book,Five Morsels Of Love, a cookbook based on her grandmother’s 1974 Telugu cookbook, VanitaVanṭakālu, was shortlisted for the 2017 Art of Eating prize. She spent over a decade working intechnology before quitting her Product Management job to recreate her grandmother's recipes and venture into writing and publishing. Her recent cookbook is Why Cook.
Vittles Recipes is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and are proofed and subedited by Odhran O’Donoghue. These recipes are tested by Tamara Vos.