Smoky eggplant with yoghurt, tahini and seeds
I have a love-hate relationship with eggplants. We had an auspicious start, years of deliciousness, until we hit a rocky patch, in no small part due to me. And, although it’s smooth sailing once again, the memory of that fractious period refuses to completely fade.
Eggplants are a nightshade, technically a berry, and have found their way into cuisines throughout the world, making themselves indispensable. There are countless varieties ranging in colour, shape and bitterness – far more variety than a trip to a supermarket in Australia would have you believe.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the standard dark purple eggplant, with its shimmering smooth skin and bountiful curves. When perfectly ripe, they have a pleasing heft to them.
I grew up thinking this eggplant could do no wrong, mostly thanks to my mum’s skill in taming them. A regular on the table was what we called eggplant melanzane – I know, eggplant eggplant doesn’t really mean anything – that consisted of slices of thick eggplant, fried to black and layered with tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmesan and basil, then baked in the oven. There was also a Sri Lankan eggplant dish where pieces were liberally dusted with turmeric and salt, deep-fried, and added to a caramelised base of onions, tomatoes and mustard seeds. Laden with chilli and seasoned with tamarind and jaggery, this was such a favourite of mine that it now lives permanently on the menu at my restaurant. These dishes show eggplant at its finest, cooked with a crisp exterior and a yielding inside, a balance of bitterness with a creamy centre, the accompanying flavours strong with a good acidity to them.
Badly cooked eggplants, though, are a thing of nightmares. I have been known to take issue with food purely based on texture; if it’s not quite right then it can destroy an entire meal for me. Eggplant can all too easily fall into this category: steamed or undercooked it fills me with horror. Another common mistake is underseasoning. Eggplants need a lot of salt. These two things are why I am very wary of both caponata and ratatouille. But the real issue in our relationship came about because of one dish I am ashamed to say I not only cooked but also served to actual customers. It was based on a recipe I had read – an old Sicilian dish using eggplant in a dessert. If I remember rightly, it was steamed, stuffed with candied fruit and then covered in a chocolate sauce. I was apprehensive but did it anyway. It was this startling mistake, made more than 10 years ago, that really tainted my love.
The dish here veers in another direction altogether. It embraces the fruit’s affinity with charred flavours. The eggplant is cooked straight over a flame until it completely gives way with extremely blackened skin. Underneath you are left with a smoky, soft and unctuous delight. The sauce provides sourness to cut through, and seeds to give a salty crunch. And then what could be a dubiously textured thing becomes a dish with layers of flavour and texture. It is a lovely side to accompany a meal. But add some fresh bread and it becomes something you can sit around, tearing, scooping and dipping into, and discussing relationships past and present.
Time: 15 minutes cooking + 10 minutes resting
Serves 4 as a side
- 2 medium eggplants
- 1 tbsp white sesame seeds
- 1 tbsp black sesame seeds
- 1 tbsp pumpkin seeds
- ½ tsp salt flakes
- 50g tahini
- 30ml water
- 180g yoghurt
- 20ml lemon juice (about half a lemon)
- extra salt flakes and black pepper
- olive oil for drizzling
- Place a cake rack over the largest burner on your stove, turn the heat to high and rest the eggplants on top. Cook on one side until the skin is very blackened and you can see the flesh starting to give way (about five minutes). Note: the eggplant is even better cooked over a coal or wood fire.
- Use a pair of tongs to gently rotate the eggplants by a third. Try and do this without piercing the skin. Cook for a further five minutes and then do a final turn to cook the remaining edge. All up you will need to cook for at least 15 minutes, if not a little more. Depending on the size of your burner and eggplants you may need to do some shuffling to make sure the fruit cooks evenly.
- Your eggplant is ready once the skin is black and charred and the eggplant looks as if it has completely given way. There also may be some juices oozing out. Rest your eggplant on a chopping board and upturn a mixing bowl over the top to allow the eggplant to steam a little, which makes it easier to remove the skin.
- Take a small frying pan, add in the seeds and toast gently over a medium heat, tossing regularly for an even cook. Toast until the white seeds have coloured to a medium brown (about three to four minutes).
- Using a mortar and pestle, add the salt to the seeds and pound just enough to crush everything a little. Set aside.
- In a bowl mix the tahini with 30 millilitres of water to thin it down and make it smooth and then add the yoghurt and stir to combine. Add the lemon juice and season well with salt. Set aside.
- Now turn back to your eggplant. Flip up the lid and, one at a time, cut the top stem off the eggplant before scraping away the skin. I like to do this using a combination of my hands and a small paring knife, rotating the eggplant as I go. You don’t need to be too thorough; some speckles of char are perfectly acceptable. Once all the skin is removed from both, use a knife to cut the eggplant into two-centimetre slices from top to bottom, trying your best to keep the eggplant in its natural shape.
- Spoon the yoghurt sauce onto a shallow serving bowl and then use a spatula to lie the eggplants on top. Season well with salt and pepper and drizzle with a generous amount of olive oil before sprinkling the tops of the eggplants with the seeds.
- This dish is just as happy served immediately as it is left to sit at room temperature.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 22, 2022 as "Blackened magic".
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