Your palate will be delighted with this eggplant caviar called mutabal, or mtabbal, moutabel, mutabbal, which is one of the most traditional mezze of the Middle East, a fragrant version of the famous baba ghanoush.
Mutabal or baba ghanoush? What is the difference ?
Let’s talk about baba ghanoush first, since mutabal is born from baba ghanoush. Baba ghanoush and mutabal contain exactly the same base ingredients: grilled eggplant, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil.
What is baba ghanoush?
Baba ghanoush (in Arabic, بابا غنوج) is therefore a dish of aubergine mashed and mixed with various seasonings. The eggplant is grilled before being peeled and its soft pulp is extracted. Garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice are added. It is often mixed with onions, chopped tomatoes, green and/or red bell pepper and pomegranate molasses.
What is the origin or baba ghanoush?
In Arabic, baba ghanoush means “pampered dad”. It is said that in the first century of our era, a high priest named Ghojnaj lived in Persia. The people loved and cherished him so much that they called him Baba Ghojnaj.
One day, one of his disciples made him a big meal of grilled eggplant and some vegetables, and Baba Ghojnaj did not just eat it alone but distributed it to many villagers. Ghanoush and Ghojnaj definitely sound similar. This would be the only likely origin of the aubergine dip.
The word mutabal originates from the Arabic word tabala, which literally means “add more aroma and spice (perfume)” and that’s exactly how the mutabal was born.
What is mutabal?
Mutabal is nothing but a baba ghanoush to which are added tahini, but also one or more spices and herbs, such as paprika, chili pepper or cumin. Tahini is another typical Middle Eastern paste, made with sesame seeds, which are ground with a little water to obtain a thick cream, used in the preparation of many condiments and dishes.
In the Syrian version, the version presented here, sheep’s milk Greek yogurt is added to the preparation. Mutabal is therefore a perfumed version of baba ghanoush.
In Lebanon, baba ghanoush is called “the ugly half-sister of hummus”. Hummus, a chickpea-based dip, is another institution in the Middle East. If you have already grilled eggplant and removed its pulp, you will understand why it is called “ugly”. Not very pretty to look at, but the end product is divine.
How to make mutabal
There is only one way to grill an eggplant to get a traditional baba ghanoush or mutabal: in direct contact with a flame; either on the flame of a gas stove, or with the aid of a powerful torch, or on the coals of a coal fire.
However, in the absence of the three recommendations, a gas or electric barbecue can also do the trick even if the characteristic aroma of fire-smoked aubergine will be missing.
Baba ghanoush, like mutabal, must be reduced to a creamy texture using a pestle and a mortar. It is the most traditional way to prepare them. First, crush the garlic before mixing and crushing the rest. The entire recipe must be prepared in a mortar.
Different versions of eggplant salads around the world
Bulgaria calls it kyopolu: it is prepared with the same basic ingredients as baba ghanoush to which grilled peppers and tomatoes are added.
In Turkey, a similar mezze is called patlıcan salatası, meaning “eggplant salad”. It is prepared with grilled aubergine purée, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, tahini, chopped tomatoes and grilled green pepper.
Still in Turkey, there is also a version called şakşuka or köpoğlu, in which eggplant is mixed with yoghurt, olive oil and garlic. Grilled and chopped aubergines and peppers are served with garlic yogurt and/or tomato sauce. The latter is also a typical variant of Bulgarian kyopolu.
Note that the hünkarbeğendi is another Turkish dish, namely a stew of mutton or lamb (more rarely veal), where the meat is served hot on a bed of aubergine caviar. This caviar also contains kaşar cheese, milk and flour.
In Armenia, eggplant caviar is known as mutabaL. The essential ingredients of Armenian mutabal are eggplant, tahini, garlic, lemon, cumin and onion.
In Georgia, it is called badrijnis khizilala, meaning simply “eggplant caviar”. It consists of fried and chopped eggplant, onion, garlic, pomegranate, red pepper, olive oil and chopped fresh cilantro.
In Israel, the traditional version is called salat ḥatzilim, meaning “eggplant salad”. It is made from flame-grilled aubergine purée, tahini, olive oil, lemon, garlic and parsley. Still in Israel, another very popular variant with mayonnaise instead of tahini exists and is called salat ḥatzilim be mayonnaise meaning “eggplant salad with mayonnaise”.
In Morocco, a dish of fried eggplants made from tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, cumin, paprika and parsley is called zaalouk.
Flame-smoked aubergine caviar is also a dish from east-central North Africa. It is composed of eggplant, olive oil, lemon and sometimes candied lemon, and parsley. Several Egyptian versions of eggplant caviar are prepared with cheese. They are usually served hot.
In Iranian cuisine, eggplant caviar is called kashk e badamjan. It is prepared with drained fermented milk (kashk). This variant is also prepared in Turkish and Azerbaijani cuisines.
In Macedonia, malidzano is a dip that consists of mashed eggplant, sirenje cheese, walnuts, and spices. In other Western Balkan countries such as Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia, it will be the same recipe to which will be added grilled green peppers.
It is made from flame-grilled aubergine purée, sunflower oil and chopped onions. Eggplants are roasted on an open flame until covered with a crust of black ash. The crust is cleaned and the remaining cooked aubergines are crushed with a thick wooden chopper. The flesh of the eggplant must be black. Crushed garlic and freshly ground pepper can sometimes be added. Instead of the oil, mayonnaise can sometimes be used, all topped with tomato slices.
In Russia and Ukraine, eggplant caviar is called zakuska. It is also known as baklažannaja ikra in Russia. Some versions add chopped tomatoes to the baba ghanoush basic recipe.
Another popular eggplant salad in Russia is called iz baklažanov (Russian: хе из баклажанов) and is influenced by Korean cuisine. It is prepared with eggplant and other cooked julienned vegetables, as well as vinegar.
In India and Pakistan, there is an eggplant dish called baingan bartha. It is also popular in Bangladesh. The dish has several names, depending on the local language (Hindi: baingan ka bharta, Bengali: bhôrta, Marathi: wangyacha bharit).
In the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India, Tamils prepare kathrikai thayir kothsu, in which aubergines are cooked, mashed and sautéed with mustard, red peppers and sesame oil. Then, yogurt and fresh cilantro are added. It is served with rice and/or raita.
French eggplant caviar (caviar d’aubergine) is a recipe from the south of France. The grilled eggplant is mixed with garlic, tomatoes, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil.
Caponata is a Sicilian caviar made from chopped fried vegetables, mainly aubergines and peppers, seasoned with celery, olives and capers in a sweet and sour sauce.
The berenjena a la vinagreta is a typical Hispanic appetizer, consisting of boiled eggplant purée and a vinaigrette with garlic, herbs and spices. In Argentina, eggplant is marinated in a vinaigrette, often containing a lot of oil, for several days, before being consumed.
In Spain, berenjena a la vinagreta is the star of tapas bars. In Catalonia, the eggplant used in this tapa is grilled and not boiled.
What is the origin of eggplant?
Cultivated in India and China before Christ and taken to Europe by the Arabs, eggplant has gone through centuries of history and legends, becoming a popular ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine.
Aubergine or Solanum melongena seems to be native to India. Its name comes from the Catalan albergínia, itself derived from the Arabic بادنجان (Bahashinjân), a word borrowed from Persian. Cultivated for over three thousand years in India, it has spread to China.
It is in a Chinese treatise dating from 500 years before our era that it is mentioned for the first time.
Some think that the wild ancestor of eggplant comes from Africa where there are many varieties of Solanum very close to eggplant. It is also possible that the eggplant has reached the coast of Somalia during trade between India and the East Horn of Africa.
T eggplant arrived in the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean then in North Africa and Spain via the Silk Road. Rhazes, in the ninth and tenth centuries, and Avicenna in the tenth and eleventh centuries, both speak about it in their works. The Book of Agriculture by Ibn al Awwam in Andalusia in the twelfth century also devotes a chapter to the vegetable.
At the beginning of its history in the West, eggplant did not enjoy an excellent reputation: the Arabs called it bashinjân, which means “the egg of the devil”.
The doctors and botanists made it responsible for fevers and epileptic seizures and called it “Sodom’s apple”, or the solanum insanum meaning “insane bad for consumption / that drives insane” .
In Spain, some doctors thought that eggplant caused diseases such as hysteria, epilepsy, phthisis and cancer. Others said that it aggravated the mood of the man and even led to change the color of the face by making it darker.
The agronomist Gabriel Alonso de Herrera in 1513 goes so far as to say that “the Arabs took it to Europe to kill the Christians”, while in Italy, next to the name petronciano, people call the eggplant, from Latin mela insana meaning “unhealthy fruit”.
In Turkey, a country where eggplant was established early, eggplant is accused of being the source of the fires ravaging Istanbul during the Ottoman era. It is said that in the summer, the inhabitants of this city lit fires at the doors of their homes to grill their eggplants, regardless of the wind blowing. Wind that still bears the name patlican meltemi, meaning “aubergine wind”.
Despite this path fraught with pitfalls for this poor eggplant, which was far from being accepted at first, it was very commonly consumed in Italy as early as the 15th century and then in Spain in the middle of the 16th century.
In France, Louis XIV, during his reign, was seduced by eggplant: he asked his gardener to plant it but as an ornamental plant.
However, eggplant started to gradually become popular in the south of France, where it was first grown in Languedoc and Provence.
Le Bon Jardinier, an encyclopedia about gardening from 1809 mentioned its culinary use: “it is served in entremets, it is a fancy stew”.
In 1825, the aubergine settled on all Parisian markets and the same year, the famous restaurant Les Frères Provençaux, rue Cadet, served the famous aubergines and grilled goat chops (“aubergines et côtelettes de chèvre grillées”).
Today, cuisines from all over the world and especially Mediterranean cuisine are embracing eggplant and restored its reputation. It is part of the culinary heritage of Provence and the entire region of Nice.
Eggplant has the distinction of being called with a different name in different European languages. The closest version of the original (Arabic) is the French “aubergine”, which sounds a lot like the Catalan albergínia.
In Occitan, it was called vietase literally meaning “donkey penis” because it was once believed that its consumption had very aphrodisiac benefits, and it is perhaps not by chance that one of the other names of eggplant is “love apple”.
In the eighteenth century, the naturalist Linné, aware of the success of solanum insanum among Mediterranean populations, renamed it more soberly solanum melongena meaning “the bad but soothing apple”.
Also in the eighteenth century, eggplant in Europe remained mainly an ornamental plant, such as the “egg-shaped” variety of the Anglo-Saxons, with small oval fruits adorned with a sumptuous robe, which they then cultivated in their house. In English, the word “eggplant” is used as the white varieties of eggplants strangely look similar to eggs.
What are the health benefits of eggplant?
Eggplant is a slimming ally, and with 18 calories per 100 g, it is one of the vegetables with the least amount of calories.
Eggplant is composed of natural antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, seleniums or carotenoids, it helps to fight against the development of various cancers and certain cardiovascular diseases.
Eggplant is excellent for colon and transit, it is diuretic, and it fights against cholesterol.
Eggplant is highly recommended for diabetics: eating eggplant would slow the digestion of carbohydrates and limit the rise in blood sugar after meals; not to mention its aphrodisiac virtues.
Do not panic, you can put eggplants at your table, fried or grilled, stewed, in pasta or salad. The detractors of aubergine no longer exist except perhaps the heroine of a famous Colombian book that was adapted as a movie: El amor en los tiempos del cólera (Love in the times of cholera), who agrees to marry her lover on the sole condition of never having to eat eggplants of her life.
With eggplant, you’ll cook some of the world’s most exquisite dishes such as moussaka, briam or melitzanosalata from Greek cuisine, kare kare from Filipino cuisine, or wambatu moju from Sri Lankan cuisine, and of course mutabal that I strongly recommend to prepare without fear and without hatred.
- 3 large eggplants
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup Greek yogurt (sheep's milk)
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or paprika)
Roast whole aubergines (with skin) in direct contact with a flame or embers until the skin becomes black and the flesh is soft.
- Remove the skin, taking care to remove all charred fragments.
- Squeeze the eggplant pulp to remove as much as possible of the bitter liquid.
- In a mortar, crush garlic cloves with salt using a pestle.
- Then add all the other ingredients into the mortar.
- Using the pestle, mix everything while crushing it roughly. Adjust the seasoning if necessary.
- Pour the mixture on a plate.
- Drizzle olive oil on top.
Sprinkle with Aleppo pepper (or paprika) and chopped parsley.
- Serve with pita bread.