Welcome again to the second post of my food blog. Today I will continue to highlight the food and cuisine of the Mediterranean culture that we discussed previously as we learned the historical significance of hummus. I hope that you learned the background, origin, cultural influences, preparation and nutritional aspects of chickpeas and how it influenced the world with this savory, yet savory spread that is know to all.
Well today I will share and highlight some findings on another well known dip, appetizer or side dish that comes from the Middle East (originally Lebanese) which has smooth, smoky, creamy texture and by the way a favorable dip. It is comprised of pureed roasted eggplant (French name is aubergine), garlic, olive oil and tahini, various spices (cumin, coriander) and other ingredients like onions, mint, parsley and cilantro. It’s Baba Ganoush. It hails from Lebanon and it’s early history spans from North Africa, Turkey, Russia and India. Babaganoush presence is also in Southeastern Brazil of all places with its Arabic and Western African influence.
The History *
The name itself comes from the Arabic phrase baba gannuj, in which baba can mean father or daddy and gannuj meaning pampered or spoiled. The Oxford English dictionary says it was named “perhaps with reference to its supposed invention by a member of a royal harem.” So the pampered daddy may have been a sultan. So some foods that we enjoy and know very little about seems to come from a royal nature. It’s amazing that humble and simple foods have great influence on history, culture and nobility which we don’t pay much attention to. In the world we live in today so much emphasis is on ethnic prepared foods that for the food trends with no background or information on it’s origin, history or culture. We cannot rely on mass media and food companies to educate us. We must educate ourselves on what we eat, preparation and everyday use.
In Syria and Lebanon, baba ghanoush is a starter or appetizer; in Egypt it is mostly served as a side dish or salad. It is made of eggplant blended with finely diced onions, tomatoes, and other vegetables. It is made of roasted, peeled, and mashed eggplant, blended with tahini, garlic, salt, white vinegar and lemon juice. Cumin and chili powder can be added. It is normally served with a dressing of olive oil and pomegranate concentrate. In the traditional method, the eggplant is first roasted in an oven for approximately 30 to 90 minutes (depending on the size of the eggplant) until the skin appears almost burnt and the eggplant begins to collapse. The softened flesh is scooped out, squeezed or salted to remove excess water, and is then pureed with the tahini. There are many variants of the recipe, especially the seasoning. Seasonings include garlic, lemon juice, ground cumin, salt, mint, and parsley. When served on a plate or bowl, it is traditional to drizzle the top with olive oil.
It is eaten in Turkey, where a similar meze is called patlıcan salatası (meaning “eggplant salad”). In Turkey, patlıcan salatası is made with mashed eggplants while baba ghanoush is cut not mashed. The baba ghanoush can be found (with cut eggplants) in southern Turkey, especially in Antakya. Also as the name Baba means father in Arabic and Turkish, in the regions where Arab population is large, the other word used in Arabic for father, Abu, is sometimes used and therefore it can be known as Abu-Gannoush. And, in Greece, it is called melitzanosalata(μελιτζανοσαλάτα; “eggplant salad”). In Israel, both the traditional version made with tahina and a variation made with mayonnaise is widely available. There is also Bulgarian eggplant salad/spread called kyopolou кьополу.
In Palestinian homes, it is made with “wild” eggplants known as “baladi” (from Arabic ‘of the earth, indigenous’). It is made with tahini, olive oil, lemon and parsley.
In Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi cuisines, Baingan ka Bhurta is a dish similar to baba ghanoush. It is similarly prepared by grilling eggplant over open charcoal flame to impart a smoky flavor to the flesh. It is then cooked with an assortment of spices, tomatoes, garlic, and onions. It is commonly served with breads like paratha, roti, and naan. Baba ghanous however tastes different from Baingan Bartha because the two recipes use different spices.
In Punjab province of Pakistan and West India, tomatoes and chopped onion are added to roasted eggplant along with various seasonings. The dish, typically served with a naan bread or tandoori roti, is called Bharta. Another variant called ‘Badenjaan Borani’ is served in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This recipe uses yoghurt and onions.
In Romania, the eggplant spread is called “Salată de vinete” (eggplant salad). The eggplants are prepared and cooked the same as above (roasted over open-flame fire or oven). Then they are peeled, drained very well, and chopped with tocător de vinete, a special wide-blade wooden knife, which resembles a small meat cleaver. It is said that the eggplant is not to touch metal in the process; however, with the convenience of food processors for chopping and mixing, people nowadays stray from the old ways. After finely chopping the eggplants into a paste, seasonings are added and everything mixed together: salt, ground black pepper, (sunflower) oil, and traditionally, finely chopped (or grated) onion. A variant is replacing the onion with garlic “mujdei de usturoi.” It is served (spread) on a slice of bread. Traditionally, the chopped onion is served separately and mixed at the table by each guest. It may be served also accompanied by roasted (kapia)peppers salad (oil/vinnegar dressing).The light color of the spread and the absence of seeds are most appreciated.
It is somewhat popular in areas heavily influenced by the Middle Eastern diaspora, as in Southeastern Brazil (see Arab Brazilian), and its presence has made eggplant more popular in almost all countries, although it was first introduced by either Iberians or West African slaves.
The Influence of the Eggplant
Eggplant is a wonderful fruit. Yes a fruit like the tomato. Its a vegetable like no other that many have not become accustomed to it’s unique flavor as well as its various preparation in several cuisines throughout the world. It has been limited to a few well known recipes like parmesan, moussaka, caponata, pasta all norma, melanzanne fritte, ratatouille, indian curries and szechuan style just to name a few. But eggplant has can be prepared like french fries, as a cold and hot salads, a panini with roasted vegetables and as a side dish to an elegant yet simple meal amongst family and friends.
Eggplant , or aubergine as it is called in France is a vegetable that is prized for its beauty as well as its unique taste and texture. Eggplant belongs to the plant family known as the nightshades (Solanaceae) are are kin to the tomato, bell pepper and potato. Eggplant grow in the same manner of tomatoes hanging from a vine that grows several feet in the air. The skin is glossy and deep purple in color, while the flesh is cream colored and spongy. Eggplant is also available in several different colors, shapes and sizes including lavender, jade green, orange and yellow white and range in sizes from a small tomato to a large zucchini. In recipes eggplant fulfills the role as a complimentary ingredients that balances the surrounding flavors of other pronounced ingredients.
Some scholars believe eggplant to be a native of North Africa and the Middle East, that developed first as a garden weed and then was selectively grown and developed in Southeast Asia. Others believe it was brought to the Middle East on the ancient Silk Road. We do know that it was cultivated a couple thousand years before Christ. The eggplant of ancient times was quite different that what we have today – it was smaller and very spiny to protect itself from being eaten by herbivores. Others have also indicated that the eggplant grew wild in India and were first cultivated in China in the 5th century B.C. Eggplant was introduced to Africa before the Middle Ages and then into Italy, the country with which it has been long associated with dating back to the 14th century. It later spread throughout Europe and the Middle East and centuries later was brought to the Western Hemisphere by European explorers. Today Italy, Turkey, Egypt, China and Japan are the leading growers of eggplant.
Eggplant is an excellent source of digestion supportive dietary fiber and magnesium. Its a food good source of vitamin K, copper, vitamin C, vitamin B6, folate and niacin. It promotes heart health and bone building which we all need. Eggplant has one of the World’s Healthiest Food ratings. So we need to make this vegetable a part of our weekly consumption. Babaganoush here we come!
I’ve always enjoyed eggplant since my teenage years. I was introduced to eggplant parmesan through a friend while dining at an Italian restaurant called Dartanyan’s in San Francisco near Embarcadero Square not far from the flagship Macy’s and the Jewerly Exchange district where I used to shop. As I started my quest in the culinary arts to become a chef I began preparing and learning more about this vegetable. While working as a Line Chef at Andronico’s Market in Albany, CA I prepared ratatouille then stuffing the baked hulled out shell of the eggplant with the filling and draping lattice pieces of mozarella cheese over it like a fruit pie lightly melting the cheese with a sprinkle of fresh chopped parsley, oregano and basil mixture. I also became a natural at making baba ganoush in which we baked the eggplant in the oven until it became pliable like shoe leather, scooped out the filling and pureed it with garlic, tahini, cumin, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. What made it really shine was placing the smooth mixture in an oval bowl taking a knife and making thin lines going across diagonally, then sprinkling fresh ground paprika over it with small streams of olive oil going across in a zig zag line. Oh grab some pita bread because the taste was intoxicating!
I love eggplant parmesan. I enjoy making it for my family, especially during the spring and winter months. The whole process and preparation is therapy to me. The peeling, slicing, salting, flouring, diping in the egg wash milk mixture, breading and frying just makes me calm for I know that once its layered in the pyrex dish with a homemade zesty marinara in layers of fresh mozzarella, parmesan and asiago cheeses then baked quickly to a light caramel brown perfection its ready to be savored with a nice romaine salad with green olives, diced roma tomatoes, julienne red onion and thin sliced cucumbers with fresh baked artisan foccaica and bottle of chianti you can ‘t get any better that that! Now I must admit my wife makes a eggplant parm better than I can ever make. I think it has to do with a woman’s touch, but I still consider mine okay compared to hers.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to participate in a Culinary Challenge with the Atlanta Travel Show with Cuisine Noir (my fellow foodie V Sheree Williams of Oakland, CA) the first food and wine lifestyle magazine for African-Americans. I was asked to prepare an authentic recipe of Baba Ganoush with a accompaniment relish that was made with that was given to me by the Tourism board of Israel. As I shopped for the ingredients at DeKalb’s Farmer’s Market here in Atlanta, I knew I had to prepare this with integrity and homage to the dish and the culture it represents. I was careful to make sure I had everything that I needed to make this the best baba ganoush that anyone from Israel would love. But I had one major problem. The recipe indicated that the eggplant had to be grilled and charred on a grill which I did not have. What could I do? I did what every true chef or culinarian or home cook would do: use what you have and be creative in the process. I pulled out my three large, well seasoned cast iron skillet and got them as hot as I could without burning my kitchen down with the kitchen fan on and my windows open and began my make shift grilling and it was a success. I charred the eggplant perfectly and it released such a smokiness after I let it cool a bit and peeled off the skins ( which took a while since I was preparing for 150 to 200 people to taste) it became so real to me that highest level that food should be prepared is according to an authentic recipe that is derived from its culture. No different versions, no extra ingredients, just plain and simple.
After my tedious work through the night because I wanted to make it as fresh as possible for the event later that day it became apparent to me that I was onto something. I made this dish with the best and freshest ingredients available, I studied the recipe in and out, I prepared it with integrity and simplicity and bam! the reward was amazing to me if no one else had the opportunity to enjoy it I enjoyed the process for myself and it was worth it. When I arrived at the travel show and set up my display and demo area I knew I was ready for it. I was born to do this, this is what I live for. After my demo the crowd came over for samples and it was a hit. Everyone enjoyed the creamy, smoky, textured of the babaganoush along with the spiciness of the fresh jalapeno-cilantro relish with fresh baked pita chips. This indeed was another culinary highlight in my life which I savored every moment.
So there you have it —-Eggplant. Go pick a few and make some Babaganoush. Explore the cultures of the Middle East and North Africa.
** Here’s a authentic recipe to try:
Easy and delicious Lebanese vegetarian recipe for Baba Ghanoush dip. Enjoy the Lebanese Cuisine and learn how to make the best Baba Ghanoush cold appetizer dish. It is also spelled baba ghanouj, baba ganoush, baba ganush which is a Middle eastern dip or spread made of roasted eggplant and tahini. Simply roast the eggplant, scoop out the softened pulp, and then puree with tahini and seasonings. The seasonings used in this recipe for Baba Ghanoush are garlic, lemon juice, parsley and salt. Dip fresh pita bread or cut vegetables into the Baba Ghanoush for a healthy snack. you may want to try using more tahini. Also, the amount of lemon juice and garlic is adjustable to personal taste; start small and add more as you go.
3 large eggplants
4 cloves garlic, or to taste
1/2 cup tahini or less, depending on size of eggplants
juice of 3 lemons, or more to taste
1/2 tsp ground cumin (optional)
2 tsp finely chopped parsley
few black olives or 1 tomato, thinly sliced, to garnish
- Cook the eggplants over charcoal or under a gas or electric broiler (sear until skins are black and start to blister with the flesh soft and juicy, rub skins off under cold water taking care to remove any charred particles, then gently squeeze out as much of the bitter juice as possible).
- Crush the garlic cloves with salt. Mash the eggplants with a potato masher or fork, then add the crushed garlic and a little more salt, and pound to a smooth, creamy puree. Alternatively, use an electric blender to make the puree.
- Add the tahini and lemon juice alternatively, beating well or blending for a few seconds between each addition. Taste and add more salt, lemon juice, garlic, or tahini if you think it is necessary, and if you like, a little cumin.
- Pour the cream into a bowl or a few smaller serving dishes.
- Garnish with finely chopped parsley and black olives, or with a few tomato slices. Serve as a mezze (appetizer) with Arab or other bread, as a salad, or as a party dip.
I hope you have enjoyed this blog on the Babaganoush and the history of the eggplant. There are several great brands that you can purchase in your local grocery markets such as Sabra (my favorite) and Sonny Joes’s. Other grocery store like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have their own private label brands. Do yourself a favor and get two eggplant and the ingredients and whip up some. Your body will appreciate a natural dip instead of the normal chips and dip.
Look for my next blog on Tabaloueh. It will be awesome!
Chef, Culinarian, Food Blogger