Guyanese Indian, you say? Yes, our friends the British needed a railroad built in this South American colony around the turn of the 19th century. So, they simply gathered up a few "extra" citizens from their empire in India, and shipped them to South America. My wife and her family are a part of that Indian diaspora. Many generations later, they retain their connection to their mother culture in their religion and food. Apart from family relationship titles, prayers and food names, no one speaks Hindi. Temperamentally, they are Caribbean, so they love parties, dancing, telling tall tales and exaggerating everyone's situation. In other words, they are great fun to be with. It took me awhile to get used to their cooking. My first encounter with it came during the first "puja" my then, Guyanese girl friend invited me to. A"puja" is a Hindu thanksgiving ceremony one conducts yearly.(The word puja means worship) It involves very specific preparations, flowers, perfume, ghee and foods previously unknown to me in my own examination of Indian restaurant food. The puja is always followed by a feast of seven vegetarian "curries", but made to very precise specifications. So there's no, "let's make the dahl differently this year". Many of these preparations are frankly, a pain in the ass like the one made with a fruit called "kuttlehar" which involves stripping off the fruit's spiny exterior, extracting the large seeds within, and separately cutting up the flesh which encased the seeds. But, since then, I have tasted a little of my wife's home cooking, and have developed my own "Italian way" of doing her Guyanese food. I should mention that my wife, because she had to learn this exacting regimen, is not someone who loves to cook. She is just fine with my vegetarian Italian food at home and my versions of her food. If you visit our kitchen while I'm cooking, you'll find her sitting quietly on the kitchen stool inches behind me- the only person I can tolerate working so close to. She is my right hand ready for clean-up or prep duty, but otherwise silent. In a future post, I'll prevail on her to make roti for the camera, but for now, here's my Italian Grandma recipe for "Bigan Choka", fire-roasted eggplant.
Ingredients: 2 small Asian eggplants; (The long purple ones. You can use Italian, baby eggplant as well, substituting 4 or 5 small eggplants); 2 cloves of garlic; 1/2 of a small onion ; a plum tomato, blanched, peeled and seeded; one Guyanese red "cherry" pepper or 2 tsp red pepper flakes; butter and oil.
Some of the elaborate preparations for a Hindu "Puja"
Procedure: Mince the garlic and pepper (Guyanese peppers look like large cranberries. They are super hot, so wash your knife after mincing them) Dice the onion and tomato after blanching the tomato for one minute to remove the skin. Turn two gas burners on high. Place the eggplant on the burners and cook turning the eggplant gently till the skin is thoroughly blackened. (about 10 minutes or more). Leave them to cool. Heat the skillet to medium with a tablespoon of Canola oil and 2 tablespoons of butter. When the butter stops foaming, add the garlic and onion to the pan, add a little salt and cook till softened. Then, add the pepper and tomato with all its juices, stirring to incorporate. Lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, remove the charred outer skin of the eggplant and mash up the flesh with a fork. Add the eggplant to the pan and using your fork, incorporate all the ingredients and further macerate the eggplant. That's it! Pretty simple cooking. At home, we could eat this with 3 of my wife's roti. Living in New York however, we can also easily find Indian Nan, which is pulled flat bread. It comes plain or onion flavored, 6 pieces per package. I always have some in my freezer. If you're familiar with Middle-Eastern food, this is similar to baba ghanoush, but fire roasting the eggplant gives it a very distinct taste.