The Secret to Medieval Eggplant

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eggplants

You can get eggplant year round these days, but it’s still a summer vegetable to me. One spring, my family planted eggplant in our backyard and quickly discovered that the plant was diabolically well-suited to our climate.

For years, it volunteered all over the place, and every summer we were buried in unplanned eggplants. My father used one to show us the football drop-kick technique. It was an unfamiliar vegetable to my family, and my mother only ventured two ways of cooking it: stewed (in ratatouille) and fried.

Once upon a time eggplant had been a newcomer in the Middle East — where it’s now the most esteemed vegetable, of course — and in the beginning people were suspicious of it. Medieval Arab doctors gravely warned patients that it would surely cause sore throat, cancer and freckles. But by the 10th century, cooks had come up with four techniques: stewing, frying and two more, stuffing (the eggplant was the first vegetable stuffed in that part of the world) and puréeing.

Solving the mystery of eggplant’s origin

We’ve more or less assimilated the first three, but eggplant purée is still a bit exotic to us. We know eggplant caviar, perhaps also the Turkish eggplant and cheese purée hunkar begendi, and certainly the Arab dip baba ghannouj. We should explore this method more. A purée is the obvious way to showcase eggplant’s unique flavor, which is at once rich and bland with a touch of bitterness and meat-like flavor.

For a long time I thought baba ghannouj was just a variation on hummus because it uses the same flavorings. In fact, it might be the older dish. In medieval cookbooks there’s a sort of dip called badhinjan mahsi (or mahshi, or even muhassa — the scribes can’t make up their minds), which might have a family relationship to baba ghannouj.

A book written in the 10th century, when the eggplant was still a distrusted newcomer calls for cooking eggplants by boiling and then flavoring them in various ways, always including vinegar and caraway. In 13th-century books, more flavorings are added, including more spices, toasted sesame seeds, as well as the walnuts of one of the 10th-century recipes and pomegranate juice on top of usual vinegar.

Badhinjan Mahsi

Photo: Badhinjan Mahsi. Credit: Charles Perry

Hmm, sesame seeds and pomegranate. Baba ghannouj is flavored with sesame paste (tahineh) and lemon juice, and in Aleppo they use pomegranate juice instead of lemon. There’s a six-century gap between these recipes and the modern dish, but I’m just saying, it seems very suspicious.

Of the medieval recipes I prefer the simplest, a 10th-century dish that’s flavored with nothing but vinegar and caraway. Yes, caraway. We associate it today with central Europe, but it was very popular in the medieval Middle East. (The word caraway comes from the Arabic karawiya.) It’s kind of a neglected spice, mostly confined to baked goods, sauerkraut dishes and the occasional cheese, but in truth it’s the elegant gentleman of spices.

And it does go with eggplant, as you’ll see if you try this recipe. The suave resinous flavor of caraway perfectly complements the brusqueness of vinegar as a way of featuring eggplant.

Badhinjan Mahsi (aka Mahshi or Muhassa)

Serves 4 to 6 as a dip

Ingredients

1 tablespoon caraway
1 pound eggplant
1 cup walnut meats
2 tablespoons vinegar, and more as needed
3 tablespoons oil
salt

Directions

1. Grind the caraway seeds in a mortar or grain mill.
2. Cook the eggplant until entirely soft. The medieval cooking method was by boiling in a covered pot, since the eggplant floats and otherwise the top side will lag in cooking. This is faster than the baking technique preferred for baba ghannouj, though baking does add an attractive smokiness. When done, let cool a bit and then strip off the peel. Let the eggplant sit in a colander to shed its bitter juices.
3. Process the walnut meats in a food processor until reduced to the texture of coarse sand. Add the vinegar and knead into a patty.
4. Put the oil in a pan and heat until starting to smoke. Add the ground walnuts and fry. (The recipe says to turn the patty over, but in practice it falls apart so you might as well just stir it around until the moisture has cooked off and the walnuts are lightly browned.)
5. Process the eggplant to a coarse purée and mix in the walnuts and caraway. Taste and add salt and vinegar to taste.
Photo: Eggplants. Credit: StockFood


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.

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Comments

Karen Strickholm
on: 7/11/12
That's really interesting, I love the articles about medieval foods. Also the word "karawiya" is very pretty. I'm going to try this recipe, and also baba ghannouj with pomegranate juice. Thanks!
Jeff
on: 7/15/12
So, boil or bake the eggplant?

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