April 20, 2020. Never did it occur to me that I’ll enjoy dipping pieces of pita bread in a dish that looks so nasty, there’s no way it’s appropriate for the dining table. But Baba Ghanoush is amazingly flavorful, I forgot it once reminded me of a diaper change.
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT AHEAD!
Growing up, I always wondered why people looked forward to my late mother’s signature dish, Arroz Valenciana. It’s a glutinous rice dish with tomato sauce; similar to Paella but with meat in place of seafood. It has the consistency that reminded me of the dog that had its time in the kitchen unsupervised and had to puke from overeating.
Gross! But that’s the point. Food should always look appetizing. Otherwise, it’s a hard pass.
But one of the benefits of working overseas is the opportunity to come across an amazing dish one would usually refuse because it closely resembles human excrement.
It usually happens when a local friend, colleague, or boss offers; and one is left with no choice but to put the atrocity in the mouth with one eye wide shut while another partly squinted. Minutes later and one suddenly emerges as a convert.
As an expatriate in the Middle East, that delicious atrocity came to me in the form of Baba Ghanoush. Although I chanced upon the dish in a different circumstance.
In Elif Shafak’s “The Bastard of Istanbul,” a female American divorcee to her former Armenian husband met her future Turkish partner at the grocery along the aisle containing jars of Baba Ganoush.
The author did not mention what the dish is like, but the mere sound of the name piqued my curiosity. It sounded like a rhapsody.
Baba Ganoush is a Middle Eastern dip made of over-grilled eggplant mixed with minced garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and other vegetables. Adding fresh yogurt is advised, while people also suggest pomegranate molasses but I have yet to try that.
The dip has a thicker texture than room temperature peanut butter; it doesn’t pour but falls in dollops if you turn the container upside down. It’s a dip; not a spread. Go figure.
Today I made Baba Ghanoush. While grilling a whole chicken in the oven yesterday, I sneaked in a piece of medium sized eggplant.
Char-grilled eggplant makes the best Baba Ghanoush. The smoky aroma enhances the flavor of the eggplant. However, grilling the eggplant in an electric oven doesn’t make the dip less desirable.
I baked it at 200 degrees Centrigrade for about 40 minutes, or until the peel almost detached from the flesh.
Others prefer to smooth their dip in a blender, I chop my over-roasted eggplant and mash it with fork later. I want my Baba Ghanoush with bits of texture.
I roasted half an onion and two cloves of garlic in the oven while peeling and chopping the eggplant. I should have done it with the eggplant yesterday but I forgot. On the other hand, using a day old roasted onion is bad.
Off went the minced garlic and diced onion into the bowl of chopped eggplant and mashed them with a fork. I then added chopped tomatoes and parsley and finished it off with lemon juice, and a heaping spoonful of creamy yogurt.
Baba Ghanoush only requires roasted eggplant, lemon, and garlic. The rest of the vegetables are optional. Keep it in the refrigerator overnight to allow the flavor to develop. Add a splash of olive oil and you can start dipping your flat breads.
If you want to spark a heated internet debate, add a spoonful or two of tahini.
Apparently, there is a huge debate, both online and in real life, between Baba Ghanoush and a similar eggplant-based Middle Eastern dip called Moutabal.
Remember how I only read about the dish’ name from a book without any idea what it looks like? Then how in the name of Demeter am I able to make the dip?
I consulted the mighty internet, of course.
But here’s the thing. Felicity Cloake wrote her version of the perfect baba ganoush at The Guardian. It contains tahini. On her food blog, Kate Taylor posted a recipe for an epic Baba Ganoush. It has tahini. The Minimalist Baker has on the blog a simple Baba Ganoush recipe. It has tahini. Even the abominable Master Chef Gordon Ramsay uses tahini in his Baba Ganoush recipe.
Proud of my latest food find, I took a photo to share with my Saudi Arabian friends. “Ah, Moutabal!” Most of them exclaimed.
I made a second batch, took a photo, and posted on Facebook along with the caption, “Baba Ghanoush.”
“Isn’t that Moutabal?” A Dubai-based friend asked in the comments.
Decades of browsing the internet thought me well enough that if I want to be strictly traditional, I should never consult Westerners about Middle Eastern food. So I had to ask a few of my real-life Middle Eastern friends for their individual opinion, noting that I used tahini on my dip.
A Saudi Arabian confirmed I made Moutabal, “I know my food!” And I have known the person well enough to trust those words.
Next, a Lebanese friend also confirmed with a disclaimer, “I’m an architect so I can’t be sure, but I’ll ask my friend. He’s a chef.” And returned with a confirmation from the chef.
Moutabal – 3; Baba Ghanoush – 0
Then came the Syrian friend who grew up outside his country. “They’re the same! Whoever said they’re different, I don’t know what they’re thinking.”
In a blog post titled “Mutabal or Baba Ghanoush: Which is Which?,” Syrian food blogger Kano wrote, “confirmed a long standing theory I have that people outside Damascus, Arabs and Westerners alike, don’t know the difference between Mutabal and Baba Ghanoush. Even Wikipedia puts them under one title.”
And that just concluded the great tahini divide. Baba Ghanoush uses tahini, while Moutabal does not.
Honestly, I prefer the one with tahini. But I’d also want to be on the less technical side of the debate and continue to call my new favorite tahini flavored dip Baba Ghanoush.
Moutabal doesn’t sound like a rhapsody; Baba Ghanoush makes you do the Fandango. Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me! Galileo…
Did you sing that? I got carried away. Now let me dip my pita to this sumptuous smoked eggplant atrocity.