Ink on my Apron: Eggplant Musings
Here’s a recipe for a sweet and spicy Moroccan eggplant dish that goes down a treat as a dip with pita but also steps up to the occasion and holds its own as a vegetarian entrée with rice. This is an absolute cracker of a dish that comes together in a matter of minutes and is likely to please both the vegetarians and non-vegetarians in your life.
I’m known to have a bit of a one-track mind and I’ve had eggplant on the brain for the past week. While a certain Mr. Paulo Coelho may well have half the world dancing to his tune of “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you out to achieve it”, my stars most certainly didn’t seem to align when I put all my eggs into what I thought was a winning recipe basket of a Lebanese-inspired Eggplant and Prawn Fatteh at a recent cooking competition. So while my culinary chops may not have received their due recognition, the universe, it seemed, wanted the eggplant to become a permanent fixture in my life. Either that or the full extent of SEO and behavioural targeting are scarier propositions than we realised.
Whether you refer to it as eggplant (US), aubergine (UK), brinjal (South Asia and South Africa) or even lesser-known names such as guinea squash (Southern American English) – the term guinea alluding to the fact that the fruit was associated with West Africa – or Jew’s Apple - a nod to the belief that the fruit was first imported to the West Indies by Jewish people - chances are you’ve had a memorable brush with this purple edible fruit that is cooked widely across different cuisines and is often considered a vegetable.
Growing up in a Malayali household, my initial exposure to the versatile fruit was seeing it take its pride of place at our elaborate lunch spreads that featured rice, fish curry, an array of thorans, fried seafood and deep-fried eggplant, which, I realise in retrospect, was probably a well thought out move to provide some much-needed textural relief and a loosely-veiled bribe to entice children into eating that much-dreaded meal. The entire fruit is first washed in a salt bath – a move that my mother tells me really brings out its colour – and is then carefully patted dry with paper towels. It is then cut into rounds and marinated in a simple mix of salt, turmeric and chilli powder before being fried.
Eggplant and prawn fatteh, the dish I entered into a cooking competition and that sparked my eggplant obsession
For most Indians, the mere mention of the word brinjal is likely to evoke the distinct smoky smell associated with Baingan Bharta. The plump purple fruit is pinched between tongs and placed directly over a gas flame until the skin blisters and crackles. By this time it will have shriveled up to half its size and acquired a satisfactory char – a sign of both the flesh being cooked and a cue that it needs to be taken off the heat and allowed to cool. The pulp is then scooped out - with no evidence of the blackened skin – and sautéed with a rich masala of tomatoes, offset by various aromatics.
While scrolling through my Instagram feed I am reminded, by British-Iranian chef, food writer, and author Sabrina Ghayour that this age-old flame roasting technique is not one that is exclusive to Indians and in fact constitutes the stolid backbone of stellar recipes such as the Persian Mirza Ghasemi, Turkish Patlican Salata and Lebanese Batinjan Al Rahib.
Of these, I’ve only sampled Mirza Ghasemiat at a little hole-in-the-wall Iranian restaurant in north London, which I maintain, has to date, been my best initiation into the fare. It was here, under the strict guidance of waiters whose recommendations were issued more in the manner of firm instructions than suggestions that I broke away from the regular Koobideh and Chello suspects and sampled lesser-known stews and salads. The crowning glory, however, was the soft-roasted eggplant dip in a tomato and garlic sauce, with eggs broken into it at the last minute giving it a hard-to-describe lift. This delightful warm dip is only made better when scooped up with the freshly-baked thick, perforated, and slightly stretchy sangak bread with an unapologetic bite to it.
The numerous Arabic and North African names for the gorgeous jewel-toned fruit, along with the lack of ancient Greek and Roman names for it, suggest that it was introduced across the Mediterranean area by the Arabs in the early Middle Ages. A book on agriculture by Ibn Al-Awwam in 12th-century Arabic Spain described how to grow eggplant. The effortless way the fruit is incorporated into Middle Eastern and North African cuisine is also a fair indicator of these facts. From Mutabbal and Baba Ghanoush – meze appetizers that are often mistaken for each other and favoured across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq that feature the flame-roasted pulp of eggplant mashed with tahini in the case of the former and pomegranate molasses, olive oil, and various other seasonings in the latter - to different regional takes on stuffed eggplant, there is a certain nonchalant adeptness in handling the eggplant.
If I’m completely honest, the reason behind my obsessive interest in what has until now been a largely overlooked ingredient in my kitchen was fuelled by a classic case of non-vegetarian guilt. I only recently realised that the editor of my column is vegetarian and immediately felt almost apologetic for not having done justice to a certain demographic of readers.
Food to me is meant to be inclusive and while vegetarian food is slightly out of my comfort zone, I was eager to right my wrongs. Due to its texture and bulk, eggplant is often used as a meat substitute in vegan and vegetarian cuisines. This, paired with the fact that as much as I appreciate a good moussaka – granted this is more of a testimony to the classic red meat and eggplant combination – I was keen to pay homage to just the fruit in all its splendour with minimal fuss to draw away from its own natural depth of flavour.
The result, I’m happy to report, is one that I’m quite pleased with and will definitely be replicating. So here’s a recipe for a sweet and spicy Moroccan eggplant dish that goes down a treat as a dip with pita but also steps up to the occasion and holds its own as a vegetarian entrée with rice. Slices of eggplant are brushed with a light drizzle of olive oil and then fried over medium-high heat until they turn a beautiful golden brown. These are then added to a wonderful sautéed sticky sauce of garlic, harissa, and lemon juice, punctuated by the pronounced flavours of cumin and ginger powder. This is an absolute cracker of a dish that comes together in a matter of minutes and is likely to please both the vegetarians and non-vegetarians in your life.
Photographs - with the exception of the header image - are courtesy of Jehan Nizar.
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and a food blogger at www.inkonmyapron.com