Two simple and delicious ways to use eggplant are Eggplant-Red Pepper Dip (Melitzanosalata) and Hünkar Beğendi, a smoky eggplant purée that pairs perfectly with Tomato-Lamb Stew.
Even though we recently returned from Greece, I’m still craving Greek food. Luckily, when I went to Costco to restock our supplies, they had fresh eggplant and figs. Combined with the lamb, crusty bread, and cheese Costco always has on hand (and a quick trip to the farmers’ market for a pile of vegetables), we had everything necessary for a Greek feast. Or two. Or ten.
I was particularly happy about the eggplant. They were in perfect condition: firm flesh and shiny, unmarred skin. Unlike many eggplant sold in Anchorage, these were picked small, and hadn’t developed a large mass of seeds inside.
The Costco eggplant came 4 to the 1.75-pound bag. For efficiency and energy savings, I oven-roasted them all at one time. (If you want to store eggplant raw, here’s how.) Half the roasted eggplant went immediately into Melitzanosalata; the other two I refrigerated to save for Hünkar Beğendi.
Fire-grilled eggplant tastes better in recipes than oven-roasted but, the day I cooked eggplant, we were too damn tired from the trip home to start a fire. To add smokiness to my Melitzanosalata, I added a grilled-over-a-gas-burner red pepper. It’s lucky there were only two of us; the pepper-laden Melitzanosalata disappeared quickly.
I used a different technique to add smokiness to Hünkar Beğendi. I’d roasted 2 eggplants whole, and stored them without breaking the skins (if you break the skins, the eggplant juices leak out and make a mess when you grill them). I took the eggplant directly out of the refrigerator and charred their skins over a gas burner. Because the eggplants were cold when I started charring them (and their skins were unbroken), they didn’t leak juices over the stove. This “smoking” technique was quick, easy, worked well, and added lots of flavor. I’ll do it again.
Hünkar Beğendi is a famous Turkish eggplant dish that’s also made in Greece, particularly in areas where many people have roots in Constantinople (Istanbul), Smyrna (Izmir), or other parts of Anatolia (Asia Minor). Translations for “Hünkar Beğendi” abound: Sultan’s Delight, Sultan’s Pleasure, The Sultan Liked It, Her Majesty’s Delight, Her Majesty’s Favorite, and The Sultan Approved.
The origins of Hünkar Beğendi are murky. Some say the dish was created in the early-17th century for Sultan Murad IV (who was half-Greek). Others say it was created for a French empress in the late 19th century. My favorite version of this story is in The Art of Turkish Cooking by Neset Eren (New York 1969):
When the Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III, was in Istanbul as the guest of Sultan Abdulaziz, the Ottoman emperor, she fell in love with eggplant purée, at that time a specialty of the Topkapi Palace. She asked her host if he would allow his chef to teach her cook how to prepare it. The sultan obliged. The next day the French chef requested an audience with the empress and begged to be excused from this impossible task. “I took my book and my scales to the Turkish chef,” he said, “and he threw them out. ‘An imperial chef,’ he told me, ‘cooks with his feelings, his eyes, his nose.’”
The empress returned to France without the recipe for her favorite dish.
In Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire (London 1998), historian Jason Goodwin repeats the Empress Eugénie story. However, in Η Οθωμανική Μαγειρική: 99 Παλατιανές Συνταγές (Ottoman Cooking: 99 Recipes from the Palace) (Athens 2004), an extremely interesting and well-researched book, author Marianna Gerasimos says:
I searched hard to find how and when the famous eggplant puree, called Hünkar Beğendi, entered Ottoman cuisine. … There are many rumors and allegations about [it being made for Empress Eugénie] but, for now, there is no written historical evidence of this.
Although Empress Eugénie may not have feasted on Hünkar Beğendi, I certainly have. In the same way that mashed potatoes are exactly right with turkey and gravy, Hünkar Beğendi and Lamb Stew are wonderful together.