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Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

posted on: Jun 9, 2021

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

From large round or egg-shaped to small and thin, the attractiveness of the many varieties of eggplants on vegetable shelves has been catching the fancy of increasing numbers of consumers and housewives. From black to blue, mauve, purple, white and all the shades in between, eggplants like magnets, draw the seeker of appealing foods.  Barely known in North America for many years, they are catching on increasingly in the kitchens in the eastern and southern parts of this continent.  On the other hand, in the lands of their origin, they have been one of the most popular vegetable crops for thousands of years.  In China, India, Japan, the Balkans and the countries which border on the eastern Mediterranean, they have been utilized with, or as a meat substitute for untold centuries.

Some historians have suggested that the eggplant originated in China about 4000 years ago and was introduced into the Middle East by the Arabs in the 8th century.  On the other hand, others have indicated that, since 1,500 B.C., eggplants have been grown and eaten as a vegetable in Iran and India.  However, much the origin of the eggplant is disputed, its history of increasing popularity since the Arab-Islamic expansion is well documented.  When, in the 7th century A.D., the Arab armies entered Iran and India they immediately took to the vegetable, and brought it back home under the name dhinjān, an Arabized form of the Persian bādnjān.  In the next century, after the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the Arabs introduced this vegetable into Europe.   In the villas and palaces of Muslim Spain, the eggplant, which ha been unknown to the Europe of that age, often graced the tables of the Moors.  Soon the eggplant’s cultivation spread through the Iberian Peninsula, and in later centuries to the rest of Europe.  The Arabic name of the eggplant adapted to and still carried in many European languages, attests to its introduction by way of the Arabs.  The Spanish berenjena, Portguese berinjela and the French aubergine, all derive from the Arabic dhinjān.  Curiously, although most European languages assumed or adapted the Arabic name, English derived its name from an eggplant species which resembles an egg.

The cultivation of this vegetable form the East spread gradually into western lands.  In many parts of Europe, it was near the end of the 16th century before it was widely cultivated, and then mostly as a decorative plant.  In North America, only in the last few decades has it been cultivated in appreciable quantity, mainly in the southern U.S.A.

Requiring long warm summers to mature, the vegetable thrives best in the tropical parts of the world.  Eggplants grow from one to two feet high and produce wide gray-green leaves and fruits weighing from a few ounces to over two pounds.  In the western world it is cultivated for both culinary and ornamental purposes.  However, in the eastern lands it is raised mostly for its edible fruit.  In the cuisine of these countries, it has always been a gourmet delight.

The nutritional value of this fruit/vegetable is about average perhaps, on the same level as tomatoes.  On the other hand, it is not rich in calories, making it ideal for those who must watch their weight.  In the Mediterranean countries where it is regarded as a staple, it is known as ‘the peasant’s meat’, and appears on the everyday menu.  Its meaty texture from which this description is taken, make it extremely versatile.  If the eggplant recipes of all the Mediterranean countries were gathered, there would be well over a thousand.  In the Arab countries of the Middle East alone at least 150 eggplant dishes are known.

To this delightful vegetable, some Arabs attribute joy to our misery in their married lives.  A newlywed bride learns quickly to master the art of making succulent eggplant meals.  There is an Arab proverb that says:

“A woman, after marriage, controls her husband with her 

beauty, then in his middle age b feeding him delicious

eggplant stews, and in his old age by beating him with 

her bathroom clogs.”

Eggplants can be cooked or preserved in various ways.  When they are to be pureed, they can be roasted over coals or in the oven.  Broiling over open fire gives them a delicate smoky flavour but baking them in the oven is much easier for a busy housewife.  The skin should be pierced in several places before roasting or baking and the eggplants turned a few times as they cook.  When the skin blisters, the eggplant is cooked, and the skin should be removed immediately.  The resulting light creamy texture of the cooked pulp is appealing and extraordinarily good to eat.  If the eggplant is to be fried or utilized in salads and stews, after slicing or cubing, it should be place in a strainer, then sprinkled with salt.  A weight should then be placed on top and the pieces allowed to drain for half an hour to remove the bitter juices.  At the start of cooking, the eggplant pieces must be fried quickly to cut down on the absorption of the oil or butter.

When eggplants are to be preserved, besides pickling ingredients, oil is utilized.  This gives the pickles a smooth rich taste.  Experience through the centuries had demonstrated that oil is the perfect medium to use when cooking or preserving eggplants.

Keeping these hints in mind, a cook can plunge quickly into the dhinjān world of he Arab lands by trying these simple recipes:

Moroccan Eggplant and Vegetable Marrow Soup

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

Serves 6 to 8

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

1/2 cup olive oil

1 medium vegetable marrow (7 to 8-inches long), cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

3 tablespoons fresh coriander (cilantro), finely chopped

2 large tomatoes, finely chopped

1 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

5 1/2 cups water

Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of the salt on the eggplant cubes, then place in a strainer, topped by a weight and allow to drain for 3/4 hour.

In a large saucepan, heat the oil, then add the vegetable marrow and sauté over medium heat for 3 minutes.

Stir in the eggplant, onion, garlic and coriander, then sauté further, stirring constantly until the eggplants begin to brown.

Add the rest of the ingredients, including the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, and bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Serve hot.

Fried Eggplant – Badhinjan Miqli

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

Serves 4 to 6

1 large eggplant, without peeling sliced into 1/2 -inch thick slices

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Sprinkle the eggplant pieces with the salt and place in a strainer, topped by a weight, then allow to drain for 3/4 hour.

Mix the garlic powder, coriander and pepper, then sprinkle this mixture on the eggplant slices.

In a frying pan heat the oil, the over moderately high heat fry the eggplant slices on both sides until they are evenly browned.

Place on a serving dish, the sprinkle with the lemon juice and serve hot or cold.

Note:  Eggplant cooked this way makes an excellent sandwich with Arabic bread or served as a side dish.

Eggplant Omelet – Badhinjan ma’a Bayd

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

Serves 4 to 6

1 medium eggplant, peeled and diced into small pieces

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

5 eggs, beaten

Sprinkle the eggplant pieces with 1 teaspoon of the salt, then place in a strainer, topped by a weight and allow to drain for 3/4 hour.

In a frying pan heat the oil over medium heat, then add the eggplant pieces, onions and garlic and sprinkle on with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt and pepper.

Sauté and stir gently until the eggplant is cooked.  (Add more oil if necessary.)

Stir in the eggs and lower the heat, then continue to sauté and stir for a few minutes until the eggs are cooked.

Serve hot.

Eggplant Dip – Badhinjan Mfasakh

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

Serves 6 to 8

1 large eggplant, peeled and sliced into 1/2 -inch thick slices

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup olive oil

2 cups laban (yogurt)

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon crushed dry mint

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup of finely chopped tomatoes

1/2 cup of finely chopped parsley

Sprinkle the eggplant slices with 1 teaspoon of the salt, then place in a strainer, topped by a weight and allow to drain for 3/4 hour.

In a frying pan heat the oil, then sauté the eggplant slices on moderately high heat until the y turn golden brown.  (Add more oil if necessary.)

Remove the eggplant pieces from the oil, drain and mash, then add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt, laban, garlic, mint and pepper and mix thoroughly.

Place on a flat serving dish, then refrigerate until chilled.

Decorate with the tomatoes and parsley just before serving.

Yemeni Eggplant Purée

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

Serves 4 to 6

2 medium-sized eggplants

1 medium Spanish onion, very finely chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 cup olives, pitted and sliced

1 small tomato, finely chopped

1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped

Grill the eggplants over an open fire or bake in an oven, turning often util they are cooked.

Peel the eggplants while they are still hot, then mash into pulp.

Add the onion, olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and lemon juice, then mix well.

Place on a flat serving dish, then decorate with the olives, tomato and parsley and serve.

Note:  Excellent as a side dish or as a dip.

Eggplant Salad – Salatat Badhinjan

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

Serves 6 to 8

1 large eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

10 tablespoons olive oil

2 large tomatoes, chopped

1 medium cucumber, peeled and chopped into small pieces

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 bunch green onions, finely chopped

1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon sumac

1/4 cup olives, pitted and quartered

Sprinkle the eggplant cubes with 1 teaspoon of the salt, then place in a strainer, topped by a weight and allow to drain for 3/4 hour.

Place 8 tablespoons of the olive oil in a frying pan, heat, then saute the eggplant cubes over moderately high heat until they turn golden brown.

Remove from the oil and place in a strainer, then allow to drain and cool.

In a salad bowl, place the eggplant cubes and the rest of the ingredients, including the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 2 tablespoons of oil, then gently toss and serve immediately.

Moroccan Eggplant Salad

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

Serves 4 to 6

1 large unpeeled eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

5 cups water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon paprika

4 tablespoons lemon juice

4 tablespoons olive oil

In a pot, place the eggplant cubes, garlic, water and 1 teaspoon of the salt, then cover and boil until the eggplant is cooked but still firm.  (About 10 minutes from boiling time.)

Place the eggplant cubes in a strainer and allow to cool, then transfer to a salad bowl and sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt, cumin and paprika and gently toss.

Just before serving, add the lemon juice and olive oil then gently toss again and serve immediately.

Stuffed Eggplants – Ablama

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

Serves 6 to 8

For the eggplants:

12 eggplants from 3 to 4 -inches long, stemmed

3/4 cup olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 1/2 cups beef with a little fat, ground

1/2 cup rice, rinsed

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1/2 cup pine nuts

For the Yogurt sauce:

4 cups laban

Whites of 2 eggs

3 cups water

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon dried crushed mint

Preparing the eggplants:

Core the eggplants with a corer, (found in Middle East markets), making sure not to break the skins.

In a frying pan heat 1/2 cup of the oil and sauté the eggplants over medium heat, turning often until they cook on all sides, then remove and place in a strainer to drain and cool.  

To the same oil in which the eggplants have been fried, add the onion and garlic, then sauté over medium heat for a few moments.  Add more oil if necessary.

Stir in the meat, rice, salt, pepper, allspice, cinnamon and oregano and stir-fry until the meat is browned, then remove and allow to cool.

In the meantime, heat the remaining 1/4 cup of oil in another frying pan and add the pine nuts, then stir-fry over medium heat until they turn golden brown.

Remove and drain, then make a filling by mixing the pine nuts with the meat mixture.

Stuff the eggplants, then set aside.

Prepare the Yogurt Sauce as follows:

Place the laban, whites of eggs and water in a blender, then blend for a few moments.

Transfer to a pot and over low heat slowly stir, all the time, in the same direction until the laban boils.

Add the rest of the ingredients and, stirring all the time, boil for a few minutes longer, then remove from the heat.

Place the stuffed eggplants in the laban sauce, then simmer over very low heat, without covering, for 30 minutes.

Serve hot.

Eggplant and Chickpea Stew – Munazilet Badhinjan

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

Serves 6 to 8

Fried, pureed, made into salads or stuffed, eggplants stimulate the appetite and make the diners smack their lips.  However, as ingredients in stews they reach their epitome.  Browned in olive oil or butter, then simmered in herbs and spices, they enhance the other ingredients.   The following are a few of these extraordinary dishes which the lovers of fine food will not easily forget.

1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

2 teaspoons salt

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 can chickpeas with its water (19 oz. 540 ml.)

2 zucchinis about 5-inches long, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 can tomatoes (19 oz. 540 ml.)

3 tablespoons fresh coriander (cilantro), finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Sprinkle the eggplant cubes with 1 teaspoon of the salt, then place in a strainer, topped by a weight and allow to drain for 3/4 hour.

Place the oil in a saucepan and het, then add the eggplant cubes and saute over moderately high heat until they begin to brown.  (Add more oil if necessary.)

Add the onion and garlic and saute further for a few more minutes, then stir in the chickpeas with its water, zucchini cubes, tomatoes, coriander, pepper and nutmeg and bring to a boil.

Cover the saucepan and turn the heat to low, then simmer for 30 minutes.  (If not juicy enough add some water.)

Serve either hot or cold.

Eggplant with Cheese Casserole – Badhinjan ma’a Jeban

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

Serves 4 to 6

1 large eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch thick slices

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup olive oil

1 can tomatoes (19 oz. 540 ml.)

1/4 pound feta or another type of white cheese, very thinly sliced

1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped

1/4 cup fresh coriander (cilantro), finely chopped

3 large eggs, beaten

1 large onion, finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1/4 teaspoon sage

Sprinkle the eggplant pieces with the salt, then place in a strainer, topped by a weight and allow to drain for 3/4 hour.

In a frying pan heat the oil, then saute the eggplant slices over moderately high heat until they turn golden brown.  (Add more oil if necessary.)

Remove from the oil and place in a strainer or on paper towels to drain the excess oil.

In a casserole, place the eggplant slices, then cover evenly with the tomatoes, cheese, parsley and coriander, in that order.

In a separate bowl, mix thoroughly the eggs, onion, pepper, allspice, oregano and sage, then spread evenly over the top.

Cover the casserole and place in a 300oF preheated oven for 1/2 hour, then remove the cover and cook for a further 10 minutes.

Serve either hot or cold.

Eggplant Stew – Yakhnet Badhinjan

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

Serves 6 to 8

2 medium-size eggplants, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

2 teaspoons salt

4 tablespoons butter

1-pound beef, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

2 medium onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 can tomatoes (19 oz. 540 ml.)

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cumin

Sprinkle the eggplant cubes with 1 teaspoon of the salt, then place in a strainer, topped by a weight and allow to drain for 3/4 hour.

In a saucepan melt the butter, then add the meat cubes and sauté over medium heat until they begin to brown.

Stir in the onions and garlic, then sauté further until they turn golden brown.

Cover with water and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to low and simmer for 1/2 hour.

Add the eggplant cubes, potatoes, tomatoes, the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, pepper, nutmeg and cumin, then simmer for a further 3/4 hour or until the meat and vegetables are cooked.

Serve hot, preferably with cooked rice.

Dervish’s Casserole – Masbahat al-Darweesh

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

Serves 6 to 8

1 large eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch thick slices

1/2 cup olive oil

4 tablespoons butter

1-pound beef, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch thick slices

2 medium zucchinis, cut into 1/2 -inch thick slices

2 large tomatoes, cut into 1/2 -inch thick slices

2 large onions, peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch thick slices

2 tablespoons fresh coriander (cilantro), finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1 cup tomato juice

Sprinkle the eggplant slices with 1 teaspoon of the salt, then place in a strainer, topped by a weight and allow to drain for 3/4 hour.

Place the oil in a frying pan and heat, then add the eggplant slices and saute over moderately high heat until they begin to brown.  (Add more oil if necessary.) Remove and place in strainer or on paper towels to drain the oil

In another frying pan heat the butter, then ad the meat and garlic and saute until the meat begins to brown.  Set aside.

Place in a casserole in alternating layers the potatoes, zucchini, meat, eggplant, tomatoes, and lastly onions.

Sprinkle over the top the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, coriander, pepper, cinnamon and allspice, then add the tomato juice and cover with water, if needed.

Cover the casserole and place in a 350oF preheated oven, then bake for about 1 hour or until the meat and vegetables are cooked.

Cook uncovered for the last 10 minutes to brown the top, then serve hot.

Upside Down Casserole – Maqlooba

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

Serves 4 to 6

1 large eggplant, sliced without being peeled into 1/2 -inch thick slices

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup olive oil

4 tablespoons butter

1-pound beef or lamb, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

2 medium onions, chopped

1/4 cup pine nuts

3 cloves garlic, crushed

3 1/2 cups boiling water

1 cup rice, rinsed

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon allspice

Sprinkle the eggplant slices with 1 teaspoon of the salt, then place in a strainer, topped by a weight and allow to drain for 3/4 hour.

Place the oil in a frying pan and heat, then add the eggplant slices and saute over moderately high heat until they begin to brown.  (Add more oil if necessary.) Remove and place in a strainer or on paper towels to drain.

In a saucepan melt the butter, then add the meat and saute until it begins to brown.

Add the onions, pine nuts and garlic, then saute and stir until they turn golden brown.

Add 2 cups of the boiling water, then simmer on low heat until the meat is tender, and the water is almost absorbed.

Place the eggplant slices over the meat, then spread the rice evenly over the top and add the remaining 1 ½ cups of water.

Sprinkle the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, pepper, cumin and allspice over the rice, then cover and allow to simmer on low heat until the rice is tender.

Shut off the heat, then allow the rice to finish cooking in its own steam.

Just before serving, invert the serving platter over the top of the saucepan, then hold securely and turnover, so that the rice is at the bottom and the meat on the top.

Serve immediately.

Eggplant Pickles – Badhinjan Makboos

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

Makes a quart jar

1 large eggplant, unpeeled and cut in the middle lengthwise and then sliced into 1/2 -inch thick 

slices

2 teaspoons salt

½ cup vinegar

4 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped

1 teaspoon thyme, finely crushed

1 teaspoon peppercorn

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 cup olive oil

Sprinkle the eggplant slices with 1 teaspoon of the salt, then place in a strainer, topped by a weight and allow to drain for 3/4 hour.

Place the eggplant slices and the vinegar in a pot, then cover with water and bring to a boil.

Cook from 3 to 5 minutes, then remove and drain in a strainer and allow to cool.

Mix the garlic, thyme, peppercorn, ginger, coriander and the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, then set aside.

Pack the eggplant slices in a quart jar with the seasoning mixture sprinkled between each layer.

Add the olive oil and if needed extra oil to top the eggplant slices by 1/2 -inch, then store for two weeks before use. 

To end our culinary journey through the dhinjān world of the Arabs, we can not think of a better dish than this sweet delicacy:

Candied Eggplants – Badhinjan Maakid

Delightful Eggplant Dishes from the Middle East and North Africa

1 dozen tiny eggplants, about 3-inches long, washed and stemmed

2 cups sugar

2 1/2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon of whole cloves

2 teaspoons mazahar (orange blossom water)

3 tablespoons lemon juice

Place the eggplants in a pot and cover with water, then bring to a boil.

Cook from 3 to 5 minutes over medium heat, then remove and drain in a strainer.

In the meantime, place the sugar, water, and cloves in a pot, then, stirring all the time, oil over medium heat until the sugar melts.

Add the eggplants, then cook for 20 minutes over low heat.

Stir in the mazahar and lemon juice and cook for a further 5 minutes, then remove and allow to cool.

Serve as a dessert with or without the syrup.