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Rice with eggplant (Vangi bhaat)

Indian cuisine in the South is filled with one-pot meals and this dish is one of the classics. There are two theories on the origins of this dish. The first is that the dish originated in the Mysore region of Karnataka. The more accepted theory is that the dish was brought from Maharashtra to Tanjore by Venkat Rao, Shivaji's half-brother when he ascended the throne. Since the dish travelled down from the North, it has maintained its local name, vangi, rather than taking on the Tamil name for eggplant. Over time the dish spread throughout the South and took on local variations. Today it is omnipresent in the Sout and a classic.

This version is from Tamil Nadu and plays with the local spices in harmony. It is a mild dish, but one with finesse. For this dish, I used the long green Thai eggplants that are prized for their soft, creamy flesh and the local purple-striped round eggplants that have a delicate flavour. Together they give the dish a lovely strong flavour of eggplant in harmony with the spices.

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For the spice powder:

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1 1-inch cinnamon stick

2 cloves

4-6 dried red chillies

3 tablespoons Bengal gram (chana) dal

2 tablespoons black (urad) dal

3 tablespoons desiccated coconut

For the temper:

2 tablespoons ghee

1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

A pinch asafoetida

12-15 curry leaves

1-2 dried red chillies

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

For the rice:

3 long green Thai eggplants, halved longitudinally and cut int 1-inch pieces

2 tablespoons tamarind paste

2 cups water

3 purple streaked small eggplants, quartered longitudinally

Olive oil spray

1 1/2 cups basmati rice

Salt, to taste

Cashew nuts, lightly roasted

On a dry frying pan individually toasts each of the ingredients for the spice powder till heated and aromatic. Cool and bring to a fine powder in a spice mill. Seta side.

Add the cut long green Thai eggplants to a bowl with the water and tamarind. Soak for 15 minutes.

Preheat an oven to 375° F.

Add the cut small eggplants to a baking sheet and spray with oil. Roast the eggplants for 25-30 minutes till they are browned and soft. Remove and set aside.

Rinse and cook the basmati rice in a rice cooker or on the stove.

Heat the ghee in a large pot and add the mustard seeds. They will splutter in 10 seconds, add the rest of the ingredients for temper and give a quick stir. Add the spice powder and cook on very low heat till the spices are fried, careful they will burn very easily. The paste will toast to a shade darker and become very aromatic.

Add the soaked long green Thai eggplants with the tamarind solution and salt and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring very often. The sauce will thicken and the oils will start to pool on the surface towards the end. The eggplants should be soft but still maintain their structure. Keep the sauce quite thick, do not dry out though.

Add the cooked rice and gently toss into the sauce till the grains are well coated with the sauce. Be careful not to mash or break up the rice during this process. taste for salt and adjust if needed.

Serve hot garnish with roasted eggplants and cashew nuts.

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