The aubergine is the undisputed king of vegetables in the Turkish kitchen. Ok, I know aubergines are technically fruits, but I’m thinking these days more than ever it’s important to keep an open mind. Even when it comes to things like fruit and veg.
First cultivated and eaten in India and quickly spreading across the Asian continent, the aubergine was prized for its mild flavour and smooth texture. Turks have taken to it like few others and claim to have more than a hundred ways to prepare aubergine. A meze table without an aubergine dish or two is simply unthinkable.
The first Turkish aubergine dish I was introduced to remains one of my favourites: aubergine in tomato sauce. I say tomato sauce, but in fact there’s as much olive oil in here as there is tomato – fitting for a dish considered a zeytinyağlı meze, an olive oil based meze. As it were, many aubergine dishes employ this classic combination of aubergine, olive oil and tomato, including the world famous imam bayıldı – though it’s still not clear whether the imam fainted because he loved the dish so much or because he was shocked at how much of his expensive olive oil had been used in its making.
But we’ll have to leave the light headed imam for some time later.
Today’s dish is both simple to make and incredibly versatile: it works just as well as a side as it does alongside a few other mezes. It’s best served at room temperature. Just make sure to use the best produce you can find – there are no spices to hide any off flavours here.
Turks often peel the aubergines in zebra stripes, maintaining some of the bitter flavour of the skin without overpowering the dish. So do I, but at the next step I deviate from the classical Turkish recipes. For this dish, the aubergine is usually fried or even deep fried, but I find it sometimes makes the dish both heavy and oily. So I roast mine instead, making the whole affair even simpler to make in the process. I still use plenty of olive oil though – this is a zeytinyağlı meze after all. If deep frying, make sure to use an oil that can withstand high heat such as sunflower oil rather than olive oil. Serves 6-8 as a side dish or part of a meze table.
- 4-5 aubergine (c. 1 kg), partly peeled and cut into 2-3 cm dice
- 150+50 ml olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 romano pepper, core, white bits and seeds removed, cut into 1 cm dice
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
- 2 ripe tomatoes (c. 200 g), peeled and roughly chopped or equivalent tinned tomatoes are not in season
- 1 tsp sugar
- extra virgin olive oil, to garnish
- flat-leaf parsley, to garnish
- pul biber (Turkish pepper flakes), to garnish
- salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to 220 C.
- Mix the aubergine dice with 150 ml olive oil and some seasoning. Roast until all the pieces are completely soft, 25-30 minutes or longer.
- Meanwhile, soften but do not brown the onion and pepper in the remaining olive oil in a large, thick bottomed pot over medium heat, stirring regularly. This takes 12-15 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to fry for another minute. Add the tomatoes and sugar and continue to cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season.
- Gently add the aubergine to the sauce and continue to cook for 5 minutes to allow the flavours to mingle, longer if your aubergines weren’t completely soft when they came out of the oven – undercooked aubergines is the only thing that can ruin this dish. Be careful when stirring so the aubergines don’t break and turn into a mash. When done, take off the heat and leave in its pot with the lid on until it has reached room temperature.
- Serve at room temperature just as it is or with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a small scattering of parsley and pul biber, if you like.
- If you want to use fresh tomatoes but they’re not at the height of season, add a little good-quality tomato paste.