Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Eggplant: Colour and Aroma of the Season

Eggplants (or aubergines as they're also known in the UK, the word derived from from the Arabic al-baðinjān) are a summer delight at the farmer's market and in my kitchen: Their varied colours and shapes (long and more rounded, in an endless spectrum) are sorely tempting, almost pleading with me to buy a few of each as I pass through the open-air market stalls with my basket in hand. One variety's really dark purplish colour almost resembles the shade of my hair in the sun and had thus always attracted me.
The exotic genus of Solanum melongena, part of the Nightshade family with its dangerous reputation, bears something of the dark attraction of India and Pakistan where the plant originates from; and also some distant relation to other solaceae plants such as the tomato and the potato. The little seeds inside the eggplant fruit, containing nicotinoid alcaloids (related to tobacco) burst forth with a bracing bitterness which is testament to the power of the human mind to find beauty in difficulty and hinder. Now that eggplants are still sticking around a little while longer, before the first frost makes them only available through the hothouse (not my choice if I can possibly avoid it!) this post is trying to capture the last rays of sun on their glistening, slick backs and bid them farewell till next spring.

The earthy, tangy and bittersweet aroma of eggplant had been my initiation rite from childhood onwards to the mystique of "grown up food" and its acquired taste delights. Luckily for myself my father loved his "meat and potatoes" meals which ~quite contrarily, as any church boy can tell you their family is probably atheist~ had the amiable effect of making me love just about anything apart from meat and potatoes from a very early age. Mother was bragging at elementary school meetings how I consumed my vegetables and legumes not only with tolerance, but actual glee! Aubergines especially were among my very favourite, an unusual trait for a child, as the vegetable is bitter by its nature. But my mother was savvy to exquisite kitchen arcana that involved little tips to be divulged at a later date: One of them is she used to salt them meticulously before broiling on the stove making the roasting aroma of eggplant one of the most beloved and nostalgic pangs I can feel in my heart of hearts even now. The whole house was aromatized by it and coming back from school I knew there was melitzanosalata on the table (aubergine paste, basically, although "salata" means salad in Greek); it's still one of my favourite goes-with-everything accompaniments on the table (Just try to resist spreading on roasted fresh bread and then we can talk). She used the pulp of the roasted eggplant scooped out with a spoon to prepare it, some crumbled feta cheese (the salty flavour again rounding off the bitterness admirably), a couple of teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil and a little finely chopped fresh garlic and blended them in a hand mixer. It was utterly delicious!

We also used to mix the roasted pulp with fresh Greek yoghurt, the paste/dip becoming a bit blander, for when there was another spirited, fiesty dish on the table and we didn't want them to antagonise; or prepared melanzana alla parmigiana and the French classic ratatouille niçoise for when we were hungrier. My grandmothers customarily prepared a main course with aubergines originating in the Near East: Either Imam bayildi (a Turkish dish literally meaning "the imam fainted", infered by pleasure of course, in which eggplants are roasted in the over, cut in half in olive oil, covered with lots of chopped onion, chopped garlic and tomato slices on top until they sweeten) or the classic moussaka with its sautéed eggplant and tomato-sauce-minced-meat layers under the thick, golden crisp béchamel sauce . I make Sicilian involtini myself nowadays. But la crème de la crème of aubergine dishes in my opinion is the Levantine baba ghanoush (بابا غنوج bābā ġanūj), a similar to melitzanosalata paste of light brown shade with so dense a smoky aroma that it is as much hypnotizing to the senses as the sound of a flute is to a cobra. I certainly can't put the spoon down!

According to the Arabs, who first brought eggplant to the West during the early Middle Ages and indirectly gave it its botanical name, "If your future wife can't prepare aubergine 50 different ways, reconsider marrying". (The info comes from Janna Gur's Book of New Israeli Food which is excellent) In Morocco and Lebanon, people eat them fried up along with hummus made from chickpeas and tahini, spreading on small pieces of pita bread. I very much liked this version and am recommending it to you as well.

Recipe for Fried Eggplants with Hummus

You will need four-five purple eggplants, preferably the long, slender variety with white and purple stripes. Also olive oil for frying and all-purpose-flour, a little salt and pepper and 1 cup of soda water for battering. It takes about 20 minutes to prepare and makes enough quantity for 3-4 people as a side-dish.

1.Put the olive oil in a pan, it should be about two fingers deep and bring it to a frying temperature. (Test it for readiness by sticking a piece of the vegetable in it, if it sizzles, it's ready. You want it to be really, really hot so the eggplants don't absorb too much oil but form a crust immediately)
2.In the meantime peel the eggplants taking care to leave a thin stripe of the peel every inch or so and cut them to pieces: I prefer to slice them or cut them in small cubes about an inch thick.
3.Mix a cup of all-purpose flour, a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper and a cup of soda water in a deep plate and lightly cover the pieces/slices of the eggplant.
4.Fry them until they turn dark golden, they should be a little crispy but not darken too much. They tend to absord a lot of oil, so drain them on a plate lined with kitchen paper for a while.
5.Salt them some more and serve hot with hummus sprinkled with roasted pine-nuts and some pita bread to bring out all the humble, earthy elements nicely.
If you don't have a reputable Middle-Eastern deli in your area or have the inclination to make hummus from scratch, here is an easy and quite decent recipe.

As an epilogue, no matter how utterly lovely and intriguing I find the smoky aroma of roasted eggplant, I have been searching for it to no avail in some form of a scented product (Have you been successful? I need the feedback, if you have). Perfumers might not have succumbed to its charms yet, nor have home fragrance producing companies, probably because they think that its peculiar scent is not attuned to the sensibilities of western societies who associate smoky with campfires or electrical wire troubles and not indoor fun activities. Still, I am throwing the idea on the table and hoping that the tanginess and earthiness of this dark, slick beauty will find imitators soon.

Pic of eggplants via elements4health.com, pic of frying eggplant by Elena Vosnaki


  1. Fiordiligi15:23

    Aubergines! How delicious, my dear, and one of my favourite vegetables. The recipes sound fabulous for this vegetarian. Thank you!

    I understand that the long shape and the round shape are male and female versions, by the way!

    I'll be over for dinner shortly......

  2. Hmmm...smoky eau de aubergine...Helg, you have hit upon something.

    Thanks for the culinary inspiration. :)

  3. dissed16:05

    The word "aubergine" is beautiful to hear and say. The color is gorgeous, the appearance and feel and taste -- perfect. Thank you.

  4. Mmmmhhh E., i "bathed" in them, literally, last week in Egypt. Everyday we had them in one or the other form. Thank you for this delicious post!


  5. An eggplant perfume, what an interesting idea. I must go purchase some eggplants and experience their aroma to decipher the code!
    Thanks so much for the recipe and your wit, which I adore.
    We were at a tapas restaurant the other night and had thinly sliced, sauteed eggplant with honey drizzled over them. It was heavenly!

  6. Helg,
    you're evil.
    I'm in Cyprus, buffet dinners included, and I'm eating things stuffed with aubergines, or aubergines stuffed with things (among others) and I'm afraid that I'll need a Greek cookbook.

  7. Oh, you've made me so hungry reading this! I need to go find my recipe for ... something, I used to make it all the time. It was essentially a dip of roasted eggplant, garlic and a couple other things (breadcrumbs and lemon?) Lots and LOTS of garlic. :)

  8. Sounds so wonderful! I grew up eating fried eggplant, slices from the large ones, in a flour and egg batter with lots of black pepper. My mother would salt the raw slices and drain them to take out the bitterness, but I don't; I like that bitter edge. I really should prepare this delicacy more often. Thanks for the recipe!

  9. Anonymous01:32

    Dear E,

    I am sorry I can't help with the aubergine parfum but I shall be on the lookout. Eggplant is a vegetable among vegetables; I can't even begin to describe its loveliness. I eat it nearly everyday in the ratatouille I cook up every weekend to take for lunch at work. I also just grilled slices of eggplant rubbed with olive oil over the charcoal grill on our deck. What an aroma! I will wrap the unctuous, grill marked slices around some feta cheese as a first course.


  10. Aubergine and courgette not eggplant and zuchini- very impressed you know out weird names for things! I was chatting with friends about foods we don't like last night and there were a few shouts for aubergine, I personally think it's great but you have to guard against them being too oily. I like them mixed up with roasted veg in cous cous and then if I'm feeling really indulgent with a fried egg on top!!

  11. Yummmy! I love the idea of melitzanosalata - just one question, how exactly do you prepare aubergines for it and how much feta cheese do you need? I need to try it - it sounds absolutely delicios!

  12. Alexandra13:23

    In my country we always cut eggplant in slices, solt it well, and leave it for an hour to let that bitter juice out. Than it is washed and prepeared. Hm, I don`t know is there a point in that practice or it is just a habit. I love long slices roasted in oven, with yogurt.

  13. Ah, one of my favorite vegetables! Unfortunately, my husband is a meat and potatoes kind of a guy, and the smell of anything beyond green beans and broccoli is bothersome to him. But my son shares in my love of Middle-Eastern foods, so I can indulge myself at restaurants when I wish.

    One of the greatest appeals of the eggplant for me is its exquisite color. In the colder months, I search for clothing materials that approximate the shimmery deep-almost black/purple. If I find a garment that also has the contrasting chartreuse-y green of the stems, all the better. It is rare that I find a blouse with these colors, but I have owned one or two over the years.

  14. Surely, you know that this is my comfort food..
    [Neartly one year ago, my mother died-
    After which, I ate it every day for several months]

    Vive l'aubergine- the color, the scent, the flavor, the textures !

  15. D,

    what a remarkable piece of information!! I had no idea, really?
    Be over for dinner whenever you like, I'd love to have you! :-)

  16. S,

    yeah, I think there should be something along those lines. There are things like Play-Doh cologne or Dirt or something. This is another "weird but lovely" smell.
    You're welcome!

  17. D,

    I like all those aspects as well...
    Glad you liked the article!

  18. N,

    you're back!! Thanks for dropping by and hope you had the most enjoyable time (sure you did!).
    They seem to love aubergines in the Middle East which makes travelling there so much fun besides all the other stuff.
    (Lucky you, you surely got to try them in more ways than I thought possible)

  19. R,

    ah, there you are, now you're talking. I am now hopeful. A smoky roasted eggplant scent with woody notes and a beautiful salty opening, something that would recall summer.

    Your tapas outing sounds like an utter success, LOVE tapas restos!! While in Madrid I could barely zip my jeans afterwards, the little size of the dishes is deceptive to how much one can actually consume!

  20. L,

    oh dear, you'll put on a pound or two for sure! (try to swim a lot, the weather is still good) The cuisine there is especially sinful and delicious, can't resist. Do get roasted haloumi cheese with figs, it's exquisite! As to Greek cookbooks, I have a few suggestions to make. Maybe in a mail.

  21. M,

    hi there! I did, didn't I!
    Your recipe sounds like a variation on melitzanosalata and the lemon juice is a Levantine addition. It should be really tasty.
    Garlic is such a divine material for (Mediterranean & other kinds) cooking: sometimes I'm afraid the fumes from cooking are getting out of the house and proclaiming how much we like it. (btw, lemon and parsley seem to eradicate the smell off the hands, rubbing them on after chopping)

  22. P,

    it sounds absolutely brilliant: the pepper if grounded fresh on top provides a great "bite". I should revisit the dishes I make with that idea in mind.
    You're welcome on the recipe, it's easy-peasy. :-)

  23. N,

    you're a woman after my own heart then! Ratatouille for work, what a lovely idea! (I love peppers too and should use them more often, besides salads) Will you be my lunch companion? :-)
    The slices of eggplant rolled over feta should be delicious. Do try them with lots of chopped onion too at a low point of fire, they sweeten and melt in the mouth!

  24. K,

    I can't help it, it's the process of learning English as a foreign language. I recall as a teenager we were utterly baffled why there were British English words (aubergine, boot, crisps*, lorry...) and American English words (eggplant, trunk, chips, truck...). And then of course there began a rationalising and "scientifizing" of word differences: why ox is Welsh and Old English-derived while veal is Normand/French-derived etc. etc (That battle of Hastings and all that jazz). I was inwardly screaming "fetchez la vache!!" while been taught. :D

    Your recipes sound like a must-try! Yeah, an egg on top would be oily-ville, no doubt.

    *I mean the ready-made kind out of a bag, not the fish & chips variant.

  25. I,

    it's really easy.
    Hey, take a note:

    Melitzanosalata a la Greque

    1.Roast three-four big round eggplants, the purple variety (They seem to have the most "flesh" in them). I do it on the stove at mid-temperature; leave them turning so they roast from every side till the whole house smells and they become grey-ashy on the exterior. It takes a while...
    2.Remove from stove, leave them be for a couple of minutes so you don't burn your fingers and gently peel them. You want the pulp, which is now very tender. Use a spoon to extract every morsel.
    3.Put the pulp in a food processor: Add 3-4 spoonfuls of extra virgin olive oil, about a handful of crumbled feta cheese (it's not something written in stone, put more if you want it saltier, less if you want it smoother) and a spoonful of vinegar or apple cider. Chop 5-6 "beans" of garlic too.
    4.Mix at low speed for as long as the mixture becomes uniform.

    Enjoy with pita bread or roasted semolina bread or even with bread sticks. It accompanies dishes of meat (lamb especially) and cold cuts too.

  26. A,

    it seems like it's the thinking behind making them less bitter, sounds very reasonable and practical. It's something recommended for ways to prepare it when there isn't any "sweetening" agent such as too much oil or onion.
    Love your way of preparing them, I should probably do it for dinner along with some pasta tonigh!

  27. M,

    I ADORE that colour myself too! The glistening, so slick outer peel is shining in the sun when I see them stacked at the market, I just wanna grab them and hug them. (They might think I'm mental). And isn't it completely awesome in clothing! I envy you your blouses, they sound perfect and they should be very au courant this season.

    Unfortunately my SO isn't very much into aubergines either. :-( He likes baba ganoush mysteriously enough, though, accompanying slowly-cooked tomato lamb. Weird...

  28. I,

    vive encore une fois! I'll raise you my glass!

    What an endearing story. I can see how your feelings manifested themselves through food. The things we devise to gets us through difficult times...


  29. O, o, o. You've started such a craving in my bowels. And I just ate.

    Long time no see. Hope you've been well.

  30. Anonymous11:50

    Just yesterday, when I was roasting some aubergine for dinner, I inhaled the lovely fragrance and thought it should be a perfume.
    Today I looked online if it is and found this site.

  31. Anon,

    thanks for posting your comment and what can I say, lucky for me you bumped onto my site. Hope you find it worthwhile and that you visit often. After all, the world (and this page) needs more people who roast aubergine for dinner and enjoy the aroma emitting. ;-)

    Friendly regards!


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