Growing up in Sri Lanka, my childhood was rich with home cooked eggplant dishes — despite my dad’s warnings
I cannot remember when I first tasted eggplant, but I was at home. Where I grew up. Our house sat in one corner of a two-acre paddy field in the teardrop island, Sri Lanka. I was in kindergarten, or maybe even younger. My mother made sure I grew up with the flavours of wambatu. This is the name for eggplant, aubergine or brinjal in native Sinhalese – wambatu.
In ayurveda, purple eggplant is considered a “heaty food” — my father, always reading, would advise us against eating it too often. “You’ll get a headache,” he will say one day. “Your legs and hands will ache,” he will tell us another day. Now at 24, I realize my father may have been right all along. Nightshades such as eggplants do seem to trigger my frequent migraines.
But it was too late. I will always love wambatu now.
Growing up in our little home, my mother would cook me her tempered eggplant dish two or three times a week. We had two kitchens at home. One was the usual indoor kitchen. The other was an open kitchen space with an earthen fire. This was the norm in Sri Lankan homes. The modern indoor kitchen is for light cooking. The earthen fire is for “serious” cooking.
Inside, there was a kerosene stove. “It cooks food faster,” my mother would say. She juggled two jobs — teacher and housewife. Once she washed and removed the stems, she would cut each eggplant into thin slices. She would carefully check for any rotten part, or sometimes for worms. If your eggplant has tiny holes inside, it’s a telltale sign of pests. In the early 2000s, most vegetables we bought home were organically grown. There was always a chance to find a tiny worm or a black, rotten part in our eggplants.
“These are the best eggplants,” my mother would say as the younger me watched her with disgust as she removed the inedible parts. “You know you aren’t eating poison. They don’t have chemical pesticides.”
In mornings before school, she would use an aluminum cooking pot. She would pour a little coconut oil. How many spoons? Two or three? There was no measuring scale. “The right amount, so it tastes right,” she would tell me. The same words her mother, my grandmother told her. Homemade coconut oil slowly would heat on the kerosene fire, and the rich aroma would fill the space within the four walls of our kitchen.
Curry leaves, sliced onions, chopped garlic and finely cut red chili would cook for three to five minutes. When the onions turned translucent, she would add the sliced eggplant into it, followed by a few tablespoons of red chili powder, roasted curry powder, turmeric powder, and sea salt. It’s cooked until the eggplants turn slightly mushy.
The creamy lentils curry and spicy sambal paired perfectly with my mother’s slightly-mushy, tempered eggplant. It was a divided labor of love. It tastes like home.
Served warm, I would devour this eggplant with white or red rice, a creamy parippu (lentils) curry, and pol sambal. Lentils are cooked in thick, creamy, homemade coconut milk with Lankan spices. Pol sambal is a spicy condiment prepared with freshly, scraped coconut. Every morning, my father would scrape half a coconut. He would then add the grated coconut flesh, dried red chili, and sliced onions into a chalice-shaped mortar. He would use a pestle to finely crush all the ingredients, and season it with lime before it went into our plates.
Tempered eggplants are muddy-green in colour. Before cooking, nature marks the raw eggplants with white and purple stripes. These are graffiti eggplants. They grow in abundance in the dry parts of Sri Lanka. Every Sunday, I would go to the weekly fair with my mother. It was a produce market where men and women came to sell and buy local produce. We’d buy two kilos of graffiti eggplants every week, just for me and my mother.
Some days in the evenings, I would sit on the green grass by the small bamboo gate at home. Every evening, a middle-aged man rode his bread truck along the dusty narrow lane in front of our house. He went through the paddy fields into the village beyond visible sight. We called him Choon Paan Uncle. Choon is a Sinhalese term which indicates fun and happiness — something like good vibes. Paan is the Sinhalese name for bread.
The truck was Choon because he played music. It was a distinctive sound unique to Choon Paan trucks around the island. When I would hear the first sound of Choon Paan Uncle, I’d call my mum and we’d buy a loaf of bread from the truck, fresh off the oven. During dinner, I’d eat two slices of bread with my mother’s tempered eggplant dish.
The American eggplant is meatier inside. They grow in farmlands in Sri Lanka’s hill country, particularly in the tea town Nuwara Eliya. The sight of small makeshift stalls piled with stacks of glorious, dark-purple eggplant fills my heart with joy. It was only during school holidays that we’d road-trip in a small minibus to the up country. We’d come back home with several kilos of eggplants and a potted, mountain-grown gerbera plant. A week later, the gerbera plant was usually dead, but our stomachs (full with delicious eggplants) are happy. Our hearts were even happier.
My mother also made a creamy curry with eggplants. She would first deep fry sliced eggplants. Once the excess oil is removed, she would make it into a curry. The crunchy pieces were cooked in thick coconut milk and seasoned with Indian Ocean spices.
There’s another eggplant dish I remember well. Wambatu moju is a celebration. It’s a delightful pickle that’s only prepared during special occasions. It has often been a centerpiece of the lunch table at home weddings, birthdays, and Sri Lankan New Year celebrations. It’s mostly served with yellow ghee rice.
To make it: eggplants are sliced. The meaty slices are fried until they turn golden brown in colour. You then fry your green chillies and shallots. These coconut-oil fried ingredients are marinated with mustard paste, ginger-garlic paste, chili flakes, salt, sugar, and vinegar. At home, we prepare the pastes ourselves on a grinding stone by hand. The preparation lasts for hours.
With layers and layers of taste, the eggplant pickle is quintessentially Sri Lankan. It tickles your taste buds. Chilli adds a punchy note. The tangy vinegar pairs well with sugar and salt, and balances the bitterness of the crushed mustards. It’s every wonderful flavour in one single bite.
Back then, in our tiny house by the paddy fields, my father worked his spare time in the garden. Our lawn was where bananas, pineapples, coconuts, and some vegetables were grown seasonally. There was also Thai eggplant and pea eggplant. Green in colour, they both look and taste different from their purple-coloured sisters. My father excelled at his elabatu (Thai eggplant) curry. He added dried tamarind from our next-door neighbor to our tiny Thai eggplants, cut in half and de-seeded.
Pea eggplants or thibbatu are even smaller. They are tiny, perfectly round balls. They are also named Turkey berries. When tempered, the clusters of berries taste wonderful. Since they are incredibly small, my father didn’t bother to remove the bitter seeds. But it was the kind of bitter you’d slowly fall in love with. I hated it at first, but with time, I slowly begin to like it. Before I knew it, I would ask my father for bitter-tasting, stir-fried pea eggplants every dinner.
As I grew up, I began loving my father’s Ayurvedic cooking. He frequented the outdoor kitchen, where he prepared tempered pea eggplants on an earthen fire inside a clay pot and turned seedless Thai eggplant into the sour, creamy curries I devoured. “There’s nothing heaty about them,” he would tell me with a smile.
In Colombo, I eat chemically-treated veggies and fruits from the supermarket, and I lunch in small eateries where curries taste nothing like love.
When I turned 10, we left for my school in Kandy. We stayed in a mountain house in the chaotic city. Our Kandy house only had one kitchen. It was where we were first exposed to chemically-treated veggies. My mother didn’t have to double-check for worms or rotten parts in her bulb-shaped, dark purple eggplants anymore.
My parents relocated to their tiny house by the paddy fields. Often, I head back home for my mother’s tempered eggplant. It sometimes triggers a migraine, but I cannot resist the taste. My father is retired now. He works in the garden and cooks on the earthen fire, making me his curries with glorious green eggplants. (BBC)