اگر فردوس بر روی زمین است همین است و همین است و همین است
The famous poet, Amir Khusrow, is supposed to have uttered the above couplet upon seeing Kashmir for the first time in the late 13th century, though some sources give credit to the Mughal emperor Jahangir. I will let you in on a confession – I secretly think that the great bard was operating under a handicap in that he had not seen the Mediterranean yet :-). The Mare Nostrum, or Our Sea, as we Romans called it, is truly heaven on earth. The region was the birthplace of Western civilisation – Minoans, Egyptians, Hittites, Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans just to name a few of the great empires that borders the beautiful waters of the almost inland sea – and is surrounded by lands with not just great history and culture but also cuisines. In this post, our quick sample of the culinary delights is baba ghanoush, a simple brinjal dip that serves as an hors d’oeuvre or even a salad.
Thankfully, the origins of baba ghanoush are not strongly disputed like some other dishes like dolma. It is fairly established that preparation is the Levant, or what is today mostly Syria and Lebanon. Known simply as patlıcan salatası in Turkey and salat hatzilim in Israel – brinjal salad – the Arab name is far more interesting. Baba ghanoush means pampered father, at least in informal Arabic. According to Middle Eastern lore, it supposedly referred to an old, toothless father whose daughter had to mash his food for him. Such a straight-forward explanation does not sit well in an Orientalist gaze and so it has been suggested that the dish was invented in the royal harem, the pampered father being an implicit reference to the sultan himself.
Of course, the brinjal originated in South and East Asia, the former variety being slightly darker, larger, and more bulbous while the latter is lighter and smaller. Among the first mentions in the West is Ibn al-Awwam’s 12th century instructions on how to grow the plant. One can only surmise from this that baba ghanoush can be no more than 900 years old, if that.
There are several versions of baba ghanoush, but I will stick to the traditional one which can later be modified to suit one’s palate. Essentially, this means that there is a basic recipe to which people add different ingredients like olives, mint leaves, tomatoes, onions, or curry powder to accommodate regional preferences. For many, the idea of the perfect baba ghanoush is influenced strongly by what they grew up with and has an ineffability about it.
- Brinjal – 1, large
- Tahini* – ⅓ cup
- Olive oil – 3 tablespoons
- Ginger – 1 inch piece
- Garlic – 6-8 flakes
- Salt – 1 teaspoon
- Pepper – 1 teaspoon
- [Optional] Mint – 1½ tablespoons, chopped
- [Optional] Coriander leaves – 1½ tablespoons, chopped
- [Optional] Paprika – 1 teaspoon
- [Optional] Cumin – 1 teaspoon
- [Optional] Cayenne pepper – 1 teaspoon
- [Optional] Black olives – 10, pitted and sliced in half
- [Optional] Tomato – 1, small
- *[For tahini] Sesame seeds – ⅓ cup
- *[For tahini] Olive oil – 3-4 tablespoons
- *[For tahini] Salt – ½ teaspoon
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
*For the tahini:
The first step is to prepare the tahini. I am not a fan of what is available in the stores, or at least, I am yet to find a brand that I like. In any case, it is very easy to make the paste at home just the way you like it, as much as you want, and for a fraction of the cost you would have to shell out for a commercially available jar. Making your own tahini is also quite useful if you live in a place that is not quite cosmopolitan and the local supermarkets do not carry tahini or if your area does not have a Middle Eastern store.
- Take about a third of a cup of white sesame seeds, also known as gingelly or til, in a pan and toast the seeds gently on a low flame. They should begin giving off a slight aroma but not get brown in the process. Be very careful not to burn the seeds for that is one sure way of ruining your tahini! This process should give the paste a nuttier flavour.
- Set the seeds aside to cool for a few minutes.
- Now, put the seeds in a food processor, add half the olive oil, and grind into a paste. Keep checking ever few seconds and add olive oil as per requirements. I prefer my tahini fairly thick but if you want your tahini runny, add more olive oil as you grind. Ensure that all the seeds have been ground into a smooth paste.
- Add salt to taste
- Your tahini is ready. Set aside to be added to the baba ghanoush.
If you have made more tahini than you require, there is no need to panic. You can put it in a jar and refrigerate – it should last for at least a month. If the oil begins to separate, stir thoroughly before use again.
For the baba ghanoush:
- The essence of baba ghanoush is a certain smoky flavour. Unfortunately, it might not be possible for all of us to fire up the grill at all times. One option is to prick the brinjal lightly with a fork and grill it in an oven. A better method is to prick the brinjal and char it over an open gas flame. This might be a little messier but it is worth the extra effort. Keep turning the brinjal and char it until the skin is crinkly and the vegetable seems to collapse upon itself. You are not done until you see visible shrinkage, which ought to take about 10 minutes. Getting this step right will come with experience but do not to undercook the brinjal; needless to say, do not burn it either!
- Once your brinjal is done, peel off the skin. You can behead the stem and peel off the skin slowly. Under no circumstances should you dip the brinjal in water to make the peeling easier – for one thing, it will not be easier, and second, it will lose its taste. If you feel your hands are getting sticky, keep a tumbler of water nearby in which to dip your fingers from time to time.
- Next, de-seed the brinjal. I usually do it by slicing the vegetable – yes, I know that technically, it is a fruit! – right down the middle and scooping out the seeds neatly. Then, I stick the blade of my knife about half way into one half and lift. This will reveal more seeds to be scooped out. Do the same with the other half.
- The next part varies a bit. Some people like to dry out their brinjal by setting in a sieve and letting gravity do its work over an hour. Others dab the brinjal with a paper towel and only reduce the moisture. Yet others do not bother desiccating at all and proceed to mash the vegetable. I belong to the last school and I really do not think the difference in taste is worth the extra hour of preparation time. Mash the brinjal gently with your hand, though you can use a wooden spatula or fork if you are a finicky sort of person, I suppose.
- Add the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil to the mixture and mix thoroughly. Be careful with the lemon juice – too much sourness can spoil a good baba ghanoush. At this stage, people add other random things to the mix – cayenne pepper and cumin, olives, coriander and mint, mayonnaise, paprika, tomatoes. I do not indulge in such frivolity and instead use these ingredients as dressing if my guests simply must have them in their baba ghanoush. You can put the mixture in the food processor for about three to five seconds if you wish.
- Put in a bowl and drizzle some olive oil over it. Serve with warm pita bread. If you live in a bread-deprived culinary zone like India, perhaps phulkas could serve as a substitute.