Sue Quinn breaks down the making of a Levantine classic
Words: Sue Quinn
Baba ganoush is a precious jewel of Levantine, Turkish and north African cuisines. It is often served as part of a mezze spread or favoured to break the fast during Ramadan, when Muslims refrain from eating during daylight hours. Some people call it a dip, others a salad or a side, but however it’s described, this rich and smoky dish is among the most flavourful morsels ever to have been scooped onto flatbread.
Aubergine, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil make up the quartet of basic ingredients, but the melody of baba ganoush varies widely, depending on where it’s made, and by whom. Sometimes it will thrum with sweet and warming spices; sometimes it comes dotted with other elements, according to the season and the region. Baba ganoush is more about personal taste than strict adherence to a recipe, as long as the components sing together as one delicious whole.
But its defining feature is always the burnt aubergine. “The aubergine must almost be incinerated on the outside, because baba ganoush is all about the way the smoke penetrates the flesh,” says James Walters, founder of Borough Market’s Arabica restaurant. And because it’s essentially a very simple dish—the components add up to more than the sum of their parts—it must be made with the finest quality ingredients possible. “There’s nowhere for poor ingredients to hide,” James adds.
In Arabica’s dazzling version, Levantine tradition meets a touch of cheffy innovation with the addition of saffron yoghurt, mint salad, toasted walnuts, a pinch of Aleppo chilli and a trickle of pomegranate molasses. No surprise, then, that baba ganoush is one of the most popular—and beautiful—dishes on Arabica’s extensive menu.
Blackened over an open flame to deliver deep smoky notes to the butter-soft flesh within. This is scraped away from the skin—including all the charred bits, as this is where the essential smoky flavour resides—and mashed, then left to drain to remove any bitter juices.
An essential, whether added with a light hand or an assertive thwack.
A squeeze of citrus provides a spritely counterpoint to the smoky richness of the aubergine, but it’s important that this acidity is perfectly balanced with all the other flavours.
A controversial addition. Some argue the dish is just not baba ganoush without the addition of sesame paste. Others insist the genuine article contains no tahini at all; if it does, it’s just an aubergine salad. If you’re making the dish at home, as with the garlic, the choice is yours.
Herbs add freshness and an extra flavour dimension. Parsley and mint are common additions, finely chopped and stirred into the aubergine or scattered over the top. Dill is known to grace baba ganoush, too.
This can be mixed into the aubergine to make a smooth puree, but might not be needed if tahini is used. Sometimes it’s drizzled halo-like around the edge of the serving plate.
The seeds often crown the top, providing vibrant colour and juicy pops of tartness.