It’s not only that Israelis love eggplant. Eggplant is necessary to Israelis.
Israel’s love for eggplant began in the early years of the nation, the austerity years. Immigrants from Hungary, the Balkans and the Mediterranean brought seeds and discovered that eggplant adapted easily to the Israeli climate, producing almost more purple fruit than they could eat. It was meaty, it was cheap, and it could be counted on to fill you up. That was important in a time of scarcity and rationing.
The amazing thing is that with austerity over, everyone still loves eggplant – as a Tel Aviv wall artist shows.
So many flavorful ingredients harmonize with eggplant. Tomatoes, herbs, cheese, tahini, date honey, and others, but above all, olive oil. Modern chefs combine all those in a warm eggplant salad that offers multiple flavors in one forkful, based on an eggplant roasted until charred.
I’ve eaten charred eggplant salad many times, in many Israeli eateries. Some chefs serve it bathed in tahini; some only plop a fat dollop of tahini on the plate somewhere. Some garnish the salad with pomegranate seeds; others with toasted pine nuts. Some peel the charred skin off the eggplant and some simply slice the hot, unpeeled vegetable down the middle, piling seasoning and toppings in a gorgeous free-style mosaic.
But first you must choose your eggplants. A modest, medium-sized one makes an appetizer for two or a whole meal for one.
In Israel’s winter, you may come upon a whale like this heritage eggplant, in the shuk…
With one of those, you can make six appetizer portions or three main dishes. These ridged heirloom eggplants are called Baladi, from the word that means “alone.” They are said to be wild, unwatered eggplants that are harvested in uncultivated fields. There are Baladi tomatoes, too. They’re prized for their intense flavors and, being unwatered, have short seasons.
Then you decide what to do with your eggplant once it’s charred. I serve mine halved and in its skin, which brings it to the table hot if all the goodies are prepared ahead of time and at hand. Apart from the obligatory tahini and herbs, the topping is chopped tomatoes, because I enjoy the contrast of their bright acidity with the earthy eggplant.
So set your eggplant(s) on a grill over an open flame. You can also roast it in a hot oven, but you won’t get that hint of charred flavor that’s so delicious. Use tongs to turn it over as each side roasts. You’ll know it’s done when it collapses.
Or cut it in two, the long way. Press a fork into the flesh to help it absorb the seasonings.
Season the eggplant with a little salt; not much because there will be salty feta cheese on top soon, and black pepper to taste.
Have prepared tahini on hand. The tahini from the jar should be diluted with lemon juice and water to get a semi-liquid consistency, and flavored with a clove of crushed garlic plus salt to taste. If you like, throw a small handful of finely chopped parsley or fresh coriander leaves into the tahini. Blend it all very well. Drizzle this flavorsome tahini over the seasoned eggplant.
More dribbling, this time with silan (date honey), if you can get it. The dish needs a touch of sweetness. If you don’t have silan, dilute a teaspoon or two of good honey in just enough water to make it runny. Hey, that rhymes.
Now pile the toppings on and douse them with olive oil. Scatter a small handful of fresh herbs over the whole: oregano, chives, chopped basil, coriander leaves. The top photo shows fresh za’atar from my potted plant.
No fresh herbs on hand? A pity, but the dish will still pop with flavor in the mouth. It’s ready to serve.
The above photo shows thick, slightly salted yogurt instead of feta. That’s very good too. If you look at the tahini, you’ll see there’s cilantro in it.
All you need with a large, warm salad like that is fresh bread, preferably a pita. Confession: I sometimes roast one eggplant, fix it up, and eat it all by myself, for lunch.
B’tayavon! (Bon appetit!)
Want to leave a comment? Please do. Just click the REVIEW button on the bottom left of this recipe and you’ll find a comfortable place to tell me what you think of it or of any other food-related thing.