On the Subject of Subjis

In Hindi, subji (सब्जी) literally means "vegetable dish." Like many words transliterated into English, it can be spelled in a variety of ways (Subzi, Subzee, Subjee, Sabji, Sabzi, and Sabzee), and it can be used in connection with any vegetable (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, okra and, as in today's recipe, eggplant).

I am a big fan of Indian food - it is a cuisine to which I turn when I am happy and celebrating, and one I seek when I need comfort and solace. To say one is a fan of Indian food is like saying that one likes people. I think there are as many regional varieties in Indian cuisine as there are different peoples of the world. 

One day when driving several of our University of Arizona Honors College students to a presentation in Phoenix, we got onto the subject of food.  I know... you didn't see that coming! One of the students, Kunal, is Indian and we talked about the differences in Indian cuisine - northern versus southern, ingredients used - and not used - depending on one's religious beliefs, and restaurant cooking versus home cooking. Kunal loves his mother's cooking and said that when you eat in an Indian restaurant you aren't getting what is eaten at home.  So, naturally, I asked if his mother would share any of her favorite recipes with me for a future post.

A couple of weeks passed and I received an e-mail from Kunal with three subji recipes from his mother.  I had no idea what a subji was but I knew I was in for a treat.

The first recipe happened to be a favorite of mine when I dine out - baingan bhartaa - eggplant and tomato flavored with a simple spice mixture. The minute I tasted this home-cooked version, I immediately understood what Kunal meant when he said that there was a big difference between home cooking and restaurant cooking.  This was so different from the versions of baingan bhartaa I had eaten in restaurants.  It was simple and yet complex, and I was able to taste each of the ingredients in every bite. And, I know it was much healthier than what you get in a restaurant.

When I think about it, the same holds true in most cultures. When we cook in our home kitchens, we tend to be more judicious - less fat, fresher ingredients and a lighter taste. I would much rather eat a meal lovingly prepared in a home than one from a restaurant kitchen, no matter how many stars it boasts.

I have now made this subji twice. For my first batch I used Roma tomatoes and removed the seeds and ribs.  It was dry and I needed to enhance the gravy by adding water. A little tomato sauce might have worked well, too. The second time, I used local, vine-ripened tomatoes and it made a big difference in the amount of sauce. In the end, I preferred the vine-ripened tomato version both for taste and texture.

The cooking of the eggplant over the flame is an important component of the recipe - it imparts a subtle smokey flavor to the subji which is wonderful. If you have an electric stove, you can probably blacken the eggplant under the broiler, although I found using an outdoor gas grill works beautifully.

So, here is Kunal's mother's baingan bhartaa. Thanks to both Kunal and his mother for their recipes and advice!  आनंद!  (Enjoy!)

- David

Baingan Bhartaa

1 large eggplant
1 cup chopped onion (about 1/2 of a large onion)
1 serrano chile, seeded and minced
a 1/2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced (or grated)
2 tomatoes, chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon paprika
salt, to taste
cilantro leaves - whole or chopped - for garnish

Using tongs, hold the baingan (eggplant) over medium flame and roast it until the skin gets charred all over. Turn the eggplant every 5 minutes to char all sides; this will ensure it is well cooked. If liquid starts to ooze form the eggplant, don't worry - this is normal (although it does make the stove messy sometimes!).

After it is fully, done, place it on a plate and cover tightly with aluminum foil for 5-10 minutes. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and scoop out all the pulp and place it in a bowl; discard the skin.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the onion, serrano chile and ginger. After the onions are browned (about 15 minutes), add chopped tomatoes and let them cook down for 5 minutes. Then add the dhania (coriander), turmeric and paprika, and cook another few minutes to meld the flavors. Add the eggplant pulp and season with salt; mix together the masala. Simmer for about 5 minutes and serve garnished with cilantro.

I served it with naan, raita and mango chutney. To finish, we had candy-coated fennel seeds.

Serves 4.


  1. Thank you for sharing your story and the recipe.... I am also a fan of Indian and food from Nepal, I quite love eggplant, and I can almost smell the smokey flavour. I will have to google raita though.

  2. Thanks, Elle Marie! I am very curious about foods of the world and just recently spoke with another student who promises recipes from her native Burma, and two other students who are traveling to Nepal this summer to visit family - I hope they come back with many recipes!

    Raita is a yogurt-based condiment which most often has cucumber in it, and sometimes carrot, tomatoes, mint (or cilantro) and other flavors. It has a nice cooling effect on hot foods!

    - David


Thank you for taking the time to leave me a note - I really appreciate hearing from you and welcome any ideas you may have for future posts, too. Happy Cooking!

If you would like to receive follow-up comments, simply click the "Subscribe by E-mail" link to the right of the "Publish" and "Preview" buttons.