The Six Best Ways To Eat An Aubergine, And Where To Do It
A Note on Nomenclature: Depending on your geographical origin, you may know these better as eggplants. As a youngster, I always thought this was a bit silly because aubergines are large purple things that look absolutely nothing like eggs. However, aubergines do actually come in many other forms: mini purple ones, long whitish green ones, small round green Thai ones, pea aubergines (that look like large peas, also a Thai thing), and even small oval white ones that actually DO look like just like eggs. Nonetheless, all of these meals happen to involve the non-eggy big purple ones.
Crispy Thai Aubergine – at Thai Pin, Covent Garden, London
Thai restaurants are two a penny nowadays, but really good ones are hard to find without branching up into the tree of posh expensiveness. This one, however, is an exception, being both reasonably priced AND really good, plus there's the added bonus of being able to look at lots of Gerald Scarfe cartoons that they have on the walls. But enough of the interior decor – on to the aubergine. This is on the menu as a side dish but I could happily go there and eat nothing else. Crisply spicy with enough fresh chilli to make you tingle (but not enough to kill you) and a lovely tickle of star anise on the palate. Mmm. More of that, please.
Rich Aubergine Curry – at various Sri Lankan restaurants, Walthamstow
Sri Lankan food is a fine thing – any cuisine in which "fried string hoppers" is a standard name for a dish MUST be great – and fortunately there's a lot of it around in the East End (which is my manor, innit). This particular curry is slow-cooked until the aubergine turns to a dark, rich, brown mulch, which fragrantly fills one's nose with all sorts of spiciness and is best scoffed with the aforementioned string hoppers (a sort of noodle) and a mango lassi on the side.
Bhattar Bhaigan – at Rasa W1
I make no apologies for including another curry, but this one is totally different from the previous one. Chunks of meltingly tender aubergine in a rich and moreish peanut and yogurt sauce. You'll be needing rice and parathas to soak up the lovely sauce and wipe the dish clean. I've been to this restaurant so frequently that the staff are almost like family (meaning that they get all resentful when I don't go for a few weeks, and then I feel guilty, and then I try to make it up to them, but it's never enough.... yes, rather TOO much like family, I fear.)
Baba Ghanoush – at lots of places
Also known as moutabel, or roast aubergine dip. Of all the world's cuisine, this is probably the dish with the greatest disparity between what it looks like (greyish brownish mush) and what it tastes like (the nectar of the gods). It is available in many Turkish, Lebanese or other Middle Eastern restaurants, over the counter in various posh delis, or you can make it yourself. One recipe can be found here if you're keen. Requires lots of good bread to go with it.
Aubergine in Pomegranate Dressing – at Levant
Like the above, this is a Middle Eastern mezze dish, but not one that I've ever found anywhere else. Now, when I was a child, people often ate pomegranates in the school playground (or did I just go to a weird school?) but I remember them as being pretty tasteless things. Here, however, it's all different. Again, we find meltingly cooked slices of juicy aubergine, but this time marinated in the most deliciously bittersweet fruity dressing. I'll bet this is what they gave Persephone in Greek mythology to make her stay a few extra months in the Underworld. And she probably only came back at all because she needed to go to the store for more pitta bread...
Aubergine Pasta Bake – at my house, or the house of almost anyone I know
This dish is legendary. First discovered by one of my college friends in a cheap supermarket cookbook, it has been passed from person to person via crumpled pieces of paper and hushed whispers ever since. It is a source of comfort on winter nights, consolation to the romantically disappointed, easily upgraded to feed about twenty people if you have enough aubergines and a big enough pot to put it all in, and most importantly is The Only Thing All My Friends Can Cook. And now, you can cook it too! Apologies if you are the sort of person who needs exact quantities measured out before they can cook, because I can't provide those, but then again, this isn't one of those recipes. It should come from the heart, go straight to the oven, and then, out of preference, get sloshed down the stomach with a large quantity of red wine. Yay.
Ingredients and method:
– basic tomato pasta sauce as you would normally make it (tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs, a bit of olive oil and a slosh of wine if you've got it – no need for it to contain anything else). You could use ready-made sauce if you really wanted, but frankly, you'll never be a domestic goddess if you can't make a pasta sauce from scratch.
– aubergines! About half a largish aubergine per person. Slice them into thin rounds and fry them in batches until nice and golden. Dry them on kitchen paper because otherwise they'll be very oily. (You can also brush them with oil and then either grill them or roast them in the oven if you prefer – might take a while, though, because you need to spread them all out which requires space.)
– pasta shapes of your choice. I'm rather fond of fusilli, but feel free to experiment. Cook the pasta as normal and drain.
– for the topping you will need sliced mozzarella and grated parmesan. Feel free to experiment with other meltable cheeses if you want, however.
When you have got these items all ready, get a large dish and layer them up. Start with aubergine slices, then pasta, then sauce, and repeat the process until you finish with an aubergine layer. Scatter the cheeses artfully on top of the aubergine. Then bake the lot in a moderate oven (180 C or Gas Mark 4) for about half an hour, until the cheese is melted and golden brown. Result: you will have a lovely dinner and your life may well change forever....