Aubergine Rhapsody

Eggplant is a sexy vegetable.

Voluptuously curvaceous, with a deliciously fecund heft, the typical European eggplant seduces with its glossy violet-black skin capped by a perky green stem. It looks mysterious, and very little like an egg, though apparently, the first ones were small, ovoid and white, which makes the North American common name much more understandable.

The French name, “aubergine,” is my favored nomenclature for the eggplant, though I seldom drop that word in normal conversation. I just love the way it sounds, and will draw it out, drawling the soft “g” sound into a purr. If you whisper it against a lover’s ear, it sounds deliciously naughty and sensual.

According to Alan Davidson’s mighty tome of culinary knowledge, The Oxford Companion to Food, the word, “aubergine” has its roots in the ancient Sanskrit “vatin gana.” The Sanskrit term entered the Persian language as “badingen,” which the Arabs derived as “albadingen;” this the Spaniards translated as “albadingena,” which thus entered the French language as “aubergine.”

Interestingly, tracing the linguistic path of the word aubergine also gives the food historian clues to its travels as a treasured culinary fruit. It is believed to be of Indian origin, though the Chinese can claim the first literary mention of it in a treatise on agriculture in the 5th century CE, which tells of its spread eastward througout Asia. Eggplants are very popular throughout Asia and are used in many exquisite dishes which I will recount in the future; for now, I want to deal with the spread of the aubergine to the West.

The Persians are said to have brought the aubergine back from India, and into the Arab cultures of the Middle East. From here, it entered Europe by way of the Moorish conquest of Spain and the Italian trading contacts with the Arabs. Many fine eggplant dishes such as the Provencal ratatouille and the Italian melanzane parmigiana, came about, though truly, at first the Europeans were reluctant to eat the fruits, probably because aubergines are a member of the Solanum family–a group which includes not only tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, but deadly nightshade.

In my opinion, the finest aubergine dishes in the world come from the eastern Mediterranean and the area around the Fertile Crescent in the region we now call the Middle East. Greek cuisine makes great use of the fruits in moussaka, a casserole dish made of layers of fried eggplant slices, potato slices and seasoned lamb topped with a rich, cheese-kissed bechamel sauce. Imam bayildi, which translates as “the Imam (a priest or prayer leader in the Islamic faith) fainted,” is a delicious dish of Turkish descent, though it is popular throughout the region, probably owing to the great pervasiveness of the Ottoman empire. Imam bayildi involves small aubergine stuffed with onions, tomatoes and sometimes pinenuts cooked in a great deal of fruity olive oil. It is said that the name came about either because the Imam fainted because it tasted so delightful, or because he found out how much costly oil his wife had used in the dish.

My favorite dish utilizing aubergine happens to also be one of the simplest.

Baba ganoush, or as the Turks call it, patlacan salatasi, is a dish of roasted aubergine, mashed to a somewhat lumpy puree, into which sesame seed paste (tahini), lemon juice, salt and crushed garlic are beaten. It is often garnished with extra virgin olive oil and minced flat leaf parsley, and is served with pita bread, or sometimes falafel.

Though I usually follow the Turkish recipe which includes just the ingredients listed above, and which results in a delicately flavored, slightly smoky spread, I was intrigued to read about Lebanese versions which replace the lemon juice with pomegranate molasses and often include a sprinkling of fresh pomegranate seeds over the puree as a garnish.

Though pomegranate seeds are out of season, and thus are not an option, I do have a supply of pomegranate molasses on hand, as I use it for Persian cookery and to make a hauntingly addictive salad dressing for summer greens and fruits. Since my friend Heather is in Lebanon learning Arabic this summer, and has been regaling us with tales of the amazing foods she is encountering and since I promised to start learning Lebanese and Turkish foods so we can have fun recreating the dishes she has eaten both at Turkish friends’ homes and in Lebanon, I figured I would use my first two large aubergine of the season to make Lebanese style baba ganoush. It is quite a simple dish, really, and is easily made. I like to roast the fruits on a charcoal grill, usually on a fire that is going out after cooking whatever main course we are having for dinner one night. I will simply toss the aubergine onto the grill, close the cover and go eat dinner. (In fact, I will also use the last of the fire for roasting ears of corn and chile peppers in the same way–there is no sense in wasting that lovely smoky heat.) (In the winter, I roast the eggplant int the oven or directly on the burner to make this–the burner method gets the right smoky taste, but the oven is easier and cleaner.)

I come back after dinner and turn the eggplants, peppers and what all else, and close the lid and go away and do the dishes. By the time the dishes are done, the fruits are all roasted, and I can put them into bowls, cover them and allow them to steam so that the skins pull away from the flesh of the fruit.

If you roast an aubergine fully, it will collapse, juice will escape and the skin will completely char and pull away from the flesh. I let them sit in a bowl covered by plastic wrap until they completely cool, then go on with the recipe.

Lebanese Style Baba Ganoush


2 medium-large dark purple aubergine
2 tablespoons tahini, well stirred
2 small cloves garlic, minced very finely
2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses
salt to taste
a sprinkle of ground sumac (optional, for garnish)
1 tablespoon minced mint leaves, for garnish


Roast aubergine as directed and allow to cool completely in a bowl covered with plastic wrap. A lot of juice will drain out of the fruit; discard this.

Place a fine sieve over the bowl you used to cool the fruits. Using your fingers, peel the fruit, picking the charred skin off of the flesh–this will be very easy. Cut off the cap and stem, and put flesh into the sieve, and with a fork, mash it roughly, letting the juice drain out into the bowl. Discard the juice. Scrape the flesh into a serving bowl.

Add the tahini, garlic, pomegranate molasses and salt, and beat to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning to suit you and your guests.

Using the back of a spoon, sculpt the puree into an attractive mounded shape. Sprinkle with sumac, if desired and mint, and set triangles cut from pita bread around.


It is generally eaten by scooping up on pita bread. Freshly baked pita is best, but I have never had a complaint from serving good pita bought in a store. You can eat it from a spoon, but only if no one else is eating from the bowl.

I have eaten it from my fingers before, but again, only if no one else was there.

You can use fresh lemon juice to taste instead of the pomegranate molasses, but really, I like the slightly more complex fruity flavor of the Lebanese version. You can also use minced flatleaf parsley instead of the mint, but I think the mint is more refreshing. You can drizzle good olive oil on top, but I don’t think it is necessary.


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  1. I love aubergines! That’s what they call them here, in England, too, which makes them sound much more exotic. Also they eat courgettes instead of squash, which are called calabacitas in New Mexico where I lived before.

    Ordering from a menu can be confusing.

    Comment by kathyf — July 7, 2005 #

  2. By whatever name, aubergine and courgette are very sweet indeed!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 7, 2005 #

  3. I’ve never tried grilling eggplant myself before, though I do love the flavor. I have eggplant… issues. The only way I can seem to eat it is if I peel them uncooked, slices them thin, douse them in kosher salt, and let them sit in a colander to drain for half an hour. Once drained and rinsed a few times, I love to make a nice parmesan with them, but failing that step, the fruit of the eggplant seems to irritate my mouth and throat something fearsome. Any thoughts? I wonder if the long roasting would have the same extractive effect as the salting…

    Also — pomegranate molasses! Hmmmm!

    Comment by biggy — July 3, 2006 #

  4. Biggy–one thing you might try is getting smaller eggplant. Asian eggplants I have never had to treat the way you describe. They do not seem to have as much bitter juice in them as the European style ones do. Also–you can try using smaller European ones like the ones pictured in this post. The younger, smaller eggplants also seem to have less of the bitter juice that seems to bother you.

    If eggplant irritates your mouth and throat–you might want to make certain that you do not have an allergy to them by having a simple blood test done. It takes ten days for the test results to come back, and it helps to know if you are allergic to something so you can decide to avoid it, or take steps to counteract the effects, such as taking benedryl. The only reason I mention this is because I recently developed an allergy to black pepper–which is highly inconvenient, to say the least. So far, it appears to only be a sensitivity, rather than a full-blown allergy, however, with food allergies it is known that an anaphalactic reaction -can- occur at any time, even if one has been able to eat and tolerate the food fairly well in the past.

    So, that said–take care of yourself, keep benedryl handy (I use the children’s liquid kind if I happen to get a good bite or two of something with lots of fresh black pepper in it) and see if my suggestions help at all.

    Pomegranate molasses is a great addition to the pantry, btw–I use it in vinaigrette for salads containing either strawberries or roasted beets all the time, and it really adds a great flavor to the salad. I also like to sneak it into various other sauces and preparations, just because it is so wonderful.

    Comment by Barbara — July 3, 2006 #

  5. I came across this post through a link from a more recent post, but the advice for allergies is very much appreciated. I appear to have developed an intolerance for garlic and occasionally raw onion, which is extremely frustrating as a cook. Sometimes I just bite the bullet and eat it anyway because I am craving garlic bread or good pasta, but perhaps keeping Benadryl on hand would be helpful for the times that it completely lays me flat.

    Comment by Otana — October 18, 2007 #

  6. Otana–a lot of folks think of Benedryl as only being useful for a runny nose and sneezing–but it isn’t. It works by attacking histamine, which is the product of an allergic reaction all over the body, not just in the nose.

    Definitely keep the liquid variety around for your food issues.

    One thing you may want to think about when it comes to garlic and onion sensitivities and allergies–often what you are reacting to is the sulphur in these alliums. The sulphur will cook out and the chemical composition of it will change the longer the garlic or onion cooks. So, for your garlic bread, try roasted garlic instead of sauteed or raw, and use caramelized onions on salads instead of raw. See what happens.

    If it seems to be the sulphur that bothers you, be aware that sulphur is often included in red wines and dried fruits as a color preservative, and you may react similarly to these foods as you do to garlic.

    Comment by Barbara — October 18, 2007 #

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