I've probably spelled it wrong, but you probably know what I mean -- babaganoush, the middle eastern dip made with eggplant (aubergine) and tahini and lemon and garlic.
When I first started cooking, back when I was a student in a share household, we'd developed a taste for middle eastern food from the many cheap and delicious Lebanese restaurants along Sydney Rd (in Melbourne.) For a few dollars we'd order the "dips and salads", which started with a large basket of Lebanese bread hot from the oven and a dozen or more little bowls of various dips and salads — at the time the number of little bowls seemed endless.
Of course, I wanted to make these dishes at home, and most of them I was able to reproduce quite nicely. but not babaganoush, never babaganoush. Mine was always too bland, tasteless, dull. I tried various recipes and followed each one faithfully, but was never happy with the result. There was something missing from the recipes, some essential ingredient.
Enter my friend Mae, Lebanese heroine and fabulous person who, before a party one night, offered to come around and show me how to make proper Lebanese babaganoush. Fantastic, I said. I'll provide everything. I made a list and she checked it twice.
So she arrived. All the ingredients were laid out at her fingertips, as well as a cool glass of white wine — it was a warm summer night. I had the griller going for the eggplant, and in case she preferred the oven method, I had the oven preheated, too. These were the two methods recommended in every recipe I'd ever seen.
"We won't need those." Mae turned off the grill and the oven. She lit a gas burner on the top of the stove and plonked an eggplant on top of it. Flames licked at the hapless vegetable's naked skin. Not high flames, low and even. Slow charring, not instant conflagration.
"Won't it burn?" I asked.
"Yes, that's the idea." Mae sipped the wine as the smooth shiny skin of the eggplant crumpled, then blackened. It hissed gently from the cracks. From time to time she turned the eggplant so it charred evenly. The kitchen smelt of burnt skin of eggplant, oddly attractive.
Finally it was done to her satisfaction and she took it off the heat and placed it in a bowl. "Too hot to handle yet."
I poured another wine and we waited. When the poor sad, crumpled blackened eggplant had cooled enough, she picked off the charred skin. The inside flesh was soft and well cooked. She mashed it with a fork, then stirred in garlic, lemon juice, tahini, salt and a drizzle of good olive oil, mixing it well but not thrashing the life out of it. She tasted it then pushed the bowl toward me. "Try it," she said.
I tasted. It was fabulous. Perfect. The exact flavor I'd fallen in love with at the restaurants and hadn't been able to replicate. I'd had all the right ingredients all along. What was missing was the smoky flavor that had come from cooking the eggplant directly on the flame.
For me, all those years ago, it was the Secret of Babaganoush and I think of my friend Mae every time I make it. I've seen that method of cooking the eggplants show up in recipes since, but a distressing number still talk about cutting the eggplant in half and baking it in the oven or under a grill, which is what I'd been trying all those years ago. Useless!
It's even better cooking them on a wood fire barbecue, BTW, and utter bliss is to slow roast/char peppers the same way. The most popular peppers to roast are red bell peppers, but for my money, though they're fiddlier to handle and have less flesh, the most delicious are the long yellow peppers — sweet or hot. I strip off the blackened skin and chop them into chunks with my kitchen scissors — inside with seeds and all — add lemon juice, crushed garlic, salt, olive oil, and the juice of the peppers and let cool. Absolutely delish!
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