The sultry inner flesh of scorched aubergines makes a dip that has become the much-loved pan-Middle Eastern classic, baba ghanoush.
Most closely associated with the countries of the Levant, like Syria, Lebanon and Isreal/Palestine, baba ghanoush also has a number of lesser-known cousins. They share the same vital starting-point: the whole aubergine is placed directly on the open flame until it collapses, then the smoke-enriched flesh is mashed or chopped with spices and other flavourings.
According to food historian Claudia Roden, it was the spread of Islam, creating an empire stretching between Asia, north Africa and the Mediterranean, that led to the creation of “a gastronomic tradition comparable to that of France or China” in the Middle East. Styles of cooking travelled within this vast area and foods from outside – like aubergine, originally from India – were shared and widely cultivated. The empire was at its most prominent between the 9th and 12th centuries, but this tradition still provides a unifying force across Middle Eastern cooking today – though naturally beset with regional variations.
Many warmer-climate countries that budge the Middle East, as well those within, have their own smokey aubergine dip, spread or salad. Some are a little inaccessible at present – unless you happen to work for a UN peacekeeping force – but the flavours are definitely worth seeking out, even if it’s just in your own kitchen.
While chomping my way through some of the world’s lesser-known cuisines in London eateries with my friend Maria Luisa, we always scanned for an aubergine starter – which would then stay on the table to be ebbed away during the meal. So there was smokey aubergine flesh combined with walnuts mopped up with soft plump cheese breads Georgian-style; mixed with tomatoes and eggs to become mirza ghasemi in north Iranian cuisine; and blended with yogurt Afghan-style scooped up by flaky tissue-thin breads [eaten cross-legged at a low table surrounded by exiled Afghani politicians]. From south India we had fiery baingan bharta with delicate naan bread. Not to mention extraordinary baba ghanoush in the Syrian and Turkish styles, Romanian, Bulgarian, Greek compilations with tomatoes and peppers…. [If you ever need aubergine dip recommendations in London let me know…]
How to make baba ghanoush
I am recommending Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe, because I’d be interested to hear his view on anything, and definitely on baba ghanoush.
Yotam is the Jerusalem-born chef who fearlessly pokes through the larders of the world, experiments with little-known ingredients and uses them to sensational effect in salads, baked dishes and patisserie.
Yotam’s business partner is Sami Tamimi, a Jerusalem-born Arab, while Yotam is Jewish, and in a little silo of Middle East harmony they run several London restaurants and produce best-selling cookbooks. Their next one is on Jerusalem.
I also very much like Nigel Slater’s instructions on creating the right baba ghanoush in his Observer column.
PS. Try not to despair at the shrinkage of your beautiful aubergine. It may weigh a healthy 400 grams when you begin but it will lose half its body weight on the flame and then more when you drain it in a colander having removing its flaky, blackened skin. From your elegant, boldly-coloured fruit to a paltry pile of yellowed flesh, it may not look like much – but baba is worth it.
Where to buy baba ghanoush in Auckland
If you don’t want to make your own, I recommend buying baba ghanoush at the Lebanese bakery and Middle Eastern food purveyor, Shefco, on Dominion Road [827 Dominion Road, Mt Roskill], or at the Isreali-oriented The Chilli Factor stall at the City Farmer’s Market at Britomart on Saturday mornings.
Where to eat baba ghanoush in Auckland
When eating out, opt for a breakfast of Turkish poached eggs with baba ghanoush, yoghurt, hot chilli butter and toast at the stylishly neighbourly Queenies in Freeman’s Bay [24a Spring St].