Summer Special: Fried Brinjal With Neem Leaves (Neem Begun)
There is a neem tree outside my home in Delhi. Many a time I have watched people break off whole twigs and branches from it and take them away. The tree doesn’t mind. In a matter of days it throws up fresh shoots. Its masses of slim, elegant leaves remain as dense as ever.
Neem or margosa is quite a wonder plant. It’s got anti-bacterial properties and is said to be good for you in dozens of ways. It’s good for your skin, eye, teeth and hair. It’s supposed to offset diabetes too. Indeed, Ayurvedic medicine has been using neem for millennia. Every part of the tree — leaf, flower, seed, stem, bark — is supposed to be beneficial.
Neem has an exceptionally bitter taste — which is kind of fitting since its use is chiefly medicinal! Cooking with neem seems like a culinary stretch, but in Bengal stir-fried neem leaves with brinjals, or Neem Begun as it is called in the local lingo, is quite a delicacy. The neem flower is also a prime ingredient of veppam poo rasam, a slightly bitter rasam, which is traditionally had on new year day in Tamil Nadu.
Come to think of it, working with the bitter flavour is not uncommon in Indian cuisine. Karela, or bitter gourd, is eaten all over the country. Methi (fenugreek) seeds and methi leaves have a bitter taste as well. But a methi tadka peps up many a dish, while methi paratha and methi aloo are among north India's favourite winter fare.
Bengal has a long tradition of having a spot of teyto (bitter) at the start of a meal. When I was a kid lunch at home was often kicked off with crispy uchchhe bhaja (fried baby karelas). Those were the days of plentiful household helps, and hence, multiple course meals -- so the rites of teyto and bhaja were scrupulously observed.
That sublime Bengali dish, Shukto, also has an undercurrent of bitterness — thanks to the karela that goes into the stew.
I used to hate the bitter stuff when I was a child. You were told to eat it because it was good for you — which made it even more unappetising. But with time I’ve grown to appreciate, shall we say, the charms of bitterness. (Not to mention that I also like my vodka and martini with a dash of Angostura bitters!)
Neem Begun is something that I often make these days. And the tree outside my home loses a few more leaves when I make it.
Cooking it is really dead simple. Yet the bitterness of the neem leaves married to the velvety softness of the brinjals makes this a dish like no other. Have it for lunch in summer when you’re feeling hot and drowsy and are tired of the daily cascade of lauki and barbati.
Neem Begun will cool you down and wake you up.
Fried Brinjal With Neem Leaves (Neem Begun)
400g small, firm brinjals
One small sprig of neem leaves
3 dried red chilles
Half teaspoon nigella seeds
A pinch of turmeric powder
Salt to taste
4 tbsp mustard oil
Pluck the neem leaves off the stem, wash and chop them roughly and keep aside. Dice the brinjals into smallish cubes (about one and a half inches).
Heat the oil in a wok. Once the oil is hot, drop the dried red chilles and let them darken a bit. Then pop in the nigella seeds. Give them a stir and add the neem leaves.
Stir the leaves over low heat — about half a minute. Then add the brinjals.
Keep frying, first on high heat and then on medium heat. When the brinjals are half done, add the turmeric and the salt.
Continue to fry, stirring at regular intervals till the brinjals are fried to a nice brown and cooked through.
Serve with rice or rotis.