There are countless ways to cook summer eggplants, all quite attractive and able to provide inexhaustible culinary inspiration (something that has occurred since eggplants were first eaten), offering combinations that highlight its succulent tastiness. Its fresh presence in salads (dips, appetizers or salads), a quite simple approach compared with others, is found in cuisines from all over the world, and especially those of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The Greek eggplant salad, essentially a mixture of roasted eggplant with olive oil and lemon juice (or vinegar) plus some herbs, is a variation of the Levantine version, as is the version from Constantinople.
The eggplant, or aubergine, for a long time classified as a fruit (as was the tomato), is believed to have Indian roots (Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, Oxford University Press, 1999). It became popular in Asia and the Middle East because it goes well with other vegetables and with meat, arriving in Europe later, through trade between Italian cities and the Arabs (13th century). In France, it naturally attracted the Sun King, Louis XIV, who had a keen interest in anything new ―anything strange and unknown― and the eminent Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, a French horticulturalist responsible for the royal gardens, aided greatly in the expansion of its cultivation in northern France. In Italy its cultivation began during the 15th century, in England during the 16th, but although it managed to be included in the menu of Pope Pius in 1570, the modest eggplant never achieved the heights in Europe that it attained in the gastronomy of the Middle East.
Back to the aubergine salad (we will talk about aubergines again in the future) and the authentic Constantinople’s version. My friend Nakis (with origins from Constantinople) summarizes its preparation in three words: “It’s very simple,” he says, his meaning conveyed in such a way as to indicate the dish’s grandeur, as something that cannot be adorned with verbal chatter. The eggplant salad comes in many versions, some of them barbaric, almost drowned in would-be inspired and combined sauces. The authentic “a la Constantinople”, however, does not need all these embellishments, but simply a clear, smoky taste and a light, delicate composition. That’s all.
The key points of this superb eggplant salad are two:
a. The smoked eggplants (we already have talked about them in the post for the hunkar begendi). Eggplants are roasted overflames (on a gas burner, or small gas stove or on charcoal, but not on the grill in the oven)
b. The result is a mixture, not a sauce or spread. Which means that you can see and sense the eggplant ―it’s not eggplant purée.
It must be understood that you cannot use any eggplant that is not properly smoked, nor you can be assisted by any magical tool (i.e. blender) that will turn eggplants into purée. The authentic eggplant salad from Constantinople is very simple, light, and extremely delicious. It does not contain any cheese, yogurt, spices, pepper, tahini, garlic, tomato, oregano or other such ingredients. It calls for a minimal, highly accessible, ritual that gives it its uniqueness. Try it out. And if you like all the dishes that accompany this one so well, serve them with it and enjoy its authentic taste.
The Authentic Aubergine Salad
Preparation: about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Prepare the aubergine salad in advance, cover with cling film and refrigerate. Easy recipe.
Ingredients (for a bowl – serves 4 as an appetizer or meze)
2 large firm and glossy dark purple eggplants/aubergines (with the calyx and stem)
2 tbsp onion juice (use a grater)
4 tbsp olive oil
1-1½ lemon, juice only
2-3 tbsp parsley, finely chopped plus a few leaves for serving
To prepare the aubergines /eggplants: Wash them and pat dry. Place aubergine on wire or heat diffuser above medium to low flame on gas stove. If roasting on charcoal, leave on low. Roast them for about 10-12 minutes on each side. As they roast and soften, you may turn them on all 4 sides [therefore you need 4 x 10’ (or 12’) = 40’ (or 48’)].
Roast them also for another 10 minutes at the base. When ready, their skin is uniformly charred and the flesh soft and begging to ooze through small openings.
Transfer eggplants on a big plate or chopping board and leave to cool slightly to handle them. Remove their skins (or, cut them lengthwise and scoop the flesh). Cut the flesh with a knife, put in a bowl and press with a fork to get really small pieces (not pulp, though). Grate the onion by hand and hold 2 tbsp from its juice (do not use the onion).
To complete: Add olive oil, lemon juice, onion juice and salt. Combine the ingredients well and add parsley. Taste and adjust lemon and salt.
To serve: Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with parsley leaves. The aubergine salad (eggplant salad) Constantinople style is a small culinary miracle.