Evil, Sexy Eggplant
Medieval doctors gravely warned that eggplant caused sore throat, cancer, freckles and insanity. Eventually, people rebelled. The 10th-century Syrian poet Kushajam wrote: “The doctor makes ignorant fun of me for loving eggplant, but I will not give it up. Its flavor is like the saliva generously exchanged by lovers in kissing.”
Eventually, Turkey became the most eggplant-oriented country in the world, particularly after the arrival of Western Hemisphere vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers. We know the tomato-eggplant combination from ratatouille and moussaka, but that’s just the beginning of the repertoire in that part of the world. They’ve got a million of them.
So there you go. It’s the worst thing in the world, said the doctors (who were totally talking through their hats), but people had discovered that eggplant, properly prepared, is the lushest, most seductive of vegetables — and a versatile one as well. We can get eggplant all year round these days, but now is a great time to salute it, as the local eggplant season comes to an end in most places next month.
This recipe is a specialty of Bergama, located in Turkey’s extra virgin olive oil territory. Not surprisingly, it relies on olive oil (though extra virgin would be overkill in this dish). It belongs to the class of dishes the French call legumes a la grecque, which are vegetables stewed with broth and oil — originally they were Christian fast-day dishes given heft by oil in place of meat. The eggplants absorb oil and become very luscious, but the lurking peppers add a bit of drama (a good reason to garnish with some cooling yogurt). The name of the dish, by the way, is pronounced approximately chartma.
Serves 3 or 4
- Trim the eggplant stalks. Peel 4 stripes of skin from the eggplants and cut deeply into the peeled sections, but do not split the eggplants. Soak the eggplants in salted water for 5 minutes. Drain and dry.
- Put the eggplant in a frying pan with the oil over medium heat and fry on all sides until the flesh becomes translucent, about 5 minutes. Trim the stems from the peppers and cut in 1-inch lengths. Place the peppers between the eggplants and fry on high heat 4 to 5 minutes, stirring often.
- Slice the tomatoes and arrange them along with the garlic cloves on top. Sprinkle with vinegar and salt. Cover the pan tightly and simmer until the eggplants are quite soft, 1 hour or more.
- Serve hot or cold with the garlicky yogurt on the side.
Here’s a totally different approach to the idea which involves frying the eggplants (more like toasting them) without any oil. Curiously, they develop an aroma a bit like popcorn. The dish ends up with a faintly medieval flavor. In Turkey, they serve raw medium-hot peppers on the side for nibbling between bites.
Serves 3 or 4
- Slice the eggplant crosswise ¼- to ⅓-inch thick. In a large, heavy pan, fry the eggplant sauces without oil on both sides until they grow limp and start to show tan spots. Remove and set aside.
- Wash the pan if necessary. Add the oil and fry the lamb and pine nuts together until lightly browned.
- Drain the fat, add the cinnamon, allspice, salt, yoghurt, tomato paste and water. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer uncovered 45 minutes.
Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.Photo: Cagirtma. Credit: Charles Perry