Eggplant is one of those vegetables. I see it in the market, know I should be eating more of it, and yet, am usually stumped as to ideas of what to actually do with it. It’s never a fast cooking vegetable, so I know I will need to put in some time and effort for whatever comes of it. My favorite way to eat it is battered and pan-fried, but I can’t be enjoying that too regularly as I have no willpower for such deliciousness Luckily, the beauty of eggplant is also its versatility. I know I can do more with it and will enjoy it, if I just think a bit and dare to try something new.
But trying something new is easier said than done, no? Stepping into the unknown, not knowing where it will lead… As a scientist, I live and find comfort in control. When everything is kept the same except for that one part I want to investigate, I know exactly where the different results arise from. In science, if you know the right questions to ask and can find a well controlled approach to solve those problems, you’re generally on track to gaining new insights. And it all stems from being able to control everything else. When too much is out of your control, you really have no idea where to begin to find those answers.
Being in control tells me I am in charge and can lead the direction. When I cook, especially gluten free, I take that same mindset from the lab and apply that approach to the kitchen. I have notebooks of ingredients and measurements that I’ve tried, and when something doesn’t work out perfectly, I systematically alter the ratios of ingredients to find the best combinations. When I cook, I find comfort in knowing how certain ingredients play together – for example basil and tomatoes will always be a fantastic marriage, no matter what dish they are combined in. There are rules to cooking because in the end, cooking is just an extension of chemistry. Ingredients behave according to their relative amounts of each other, just like molecules in a chemical reaction (it really is all about ratios). I like knowing that rules exist for the kitchen – the more I learn what those rules are, the more I can use them to achieve what I want on our dinner plate. To me, the process of discovery while cooking is really not all that different from the same process that I use in my day to day life at work.
With photography, I am equally analytical. I set up my flash bounced off the ceiling on the opposite side of the room, take a reading with the lightmeter, and adjust accordingly based on the ratios of light allowed to pass through the camera to form my image and dictate exposure. I love that once you know the rules, it just works. When I first tried long exposure photography last summer in our hotel room with the windows wide open to the freezing night air so that I could watch the stars dance over the Matterhorn, I dutifully worked out in my head all the tables of exposure to go from a quick 30s blurry dark mountain against a starlit sky to a bright contrasted Matterhorn lit by the slightest hint of pre-dawning light shining with the bright lingering trails in the sky over half an hour. The entire 30 minutes I was giddy with delight, and knew while I had never done this before, I knew something cool would result.
Within rules, I find freedom. Knowing my constraints forces me to be creative. I’ve never really thought of myself as an artist, because everything I like to do is always so meticulously planned out and fashioned. But it’s in those plans that I can let myself see beauty. Understanding that nature has a path and a purpose, and that sometimes we can glimpse into her mechanisms just a little bit to see the world for what it is, opens up a mystery and fascination that has always inspired me.
I like to think that control is also possible in life. That there are rules in which everything just works out, if only we could understand what those rules are. But I think I am learning (if not now then soon for sure), that not everything is a perfect symphony of spheres dancing around in space – some things will be without rules and we may just have to make it up as we go along – and that terrifies me, not having that control to rely on. My husband, being very chill and a “go with the flow” type, doesn’t seem to have this issue, and I know he is going to have to help me adjust to the idea that there are some things I just won’t be able to plan.
And it’s times like these where I increasingly find myself in the kitchen, an environment I know will always follow the rules. In fact, I even prefer to cook GF foods, because the constraints inspire more creativity and we both end up often pleasantly surprised by the results we come up with.
But eggplant? I don’t know what makes eggplant sing. Not a clue. So in the process of learning to let go a bit and just “see what happens”, I decided to give eggplant a try with an entirely new direction. Taking my cue from last month’s IndianFoodPalooza event, I grilled it and gave it a coconut curry. I know eggplant is versatile, I know I like coconut curry, so sure, why not?? I took a chance on something that lay outside of my known “rulebook”, and gave it a try.
I ventured to something unknown, something totally new, and it was beautiful and wonderful. You may not think eggplants and coconut were meant to be together, but they are – a perfect marriage of flavor and texture. We both sat at the table, my husband and I, bellies now full, yet still craving more. Exactly the type of reaction I look for in a successful dish.
But more importantly, for once I let go of my rules. And life still went on.
Adapted from Tamil Nadu Recipes
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hr
- 2 large eggplants, sliced
- 2 onions, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup grated coconut
- 1 tsp. ground cayenne
- 1 tbsp. ground coriander
- 1 tsp. ground ginger
- 1 medium tomato, chopped
- 1 tsp. tamarind paste
- 2 tbsp. sugar
- oil for cooking
- coriander leaves for garnish