20 August 2013

Eggplant with rue and spices, served cold: Food item Seventeen: A&S 50 Challenge

Eggplant with rue and spices, served cold: Food item Seventeen: A&S 50 Challenge
Tenth century urban Middle Eastern dish
Julia May aka Samia al-Kaslaania
August 2013, presented at St. Radegund’s Fair

Another eggplant recipe similar to [the above]
--From Chapter 45: making cold dishes (bawarid) of vegetables and the best of roots

Take small eggplants and cut them lengthwise into halves. Let them soak in salted water.

Take a small pot and heat in it a mix of sweet olive oil (zayt tayyib) and sesame oil (shayraj). Fry the [drained] eggplant [pieces] until done. Sprinkle the eggplant with murri and add to the pot cassia and galangal a piece each. Add as well sprigs of (taqat) of rue.

Spread the eggplant on a platter, grind with 10 [shelled] walnuts, and spread them over the eggplant while it is still hot. Cover the plate with a piece of cloth to let the walnuts release their oil. Spread on the dish a small amount of fresh leek (kurrath ratb) with has been fried in olive oil along with cilantro and rue. Serve the dish, God willing.

  • Translation from:  Nasrallah, Nawal. Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook. Islamic History and Civilization series, Vol. 70. Brill 2007, pp. 226-227.

Eggplant with rue and spices, served cold

4 small-medium eggplants
Olive oil
Pale sesame oil
3 Tbsp. Tamari sauce (gluten free soy sauce)
2 Fresh galangal coins
½ stick of cassia cinnamon (substitute Ceylon)
2 sprigs fresh rue
½ cup Ground walnuts (substitute pistachios)
3 Leeks (substitute 1-2 bunches fat green onions)
Handful fresh cilantro

[Recipe roughly doubled from original]
Remove the calyxes from the eggplants, slice eggplants in half. Place in a large bowl, sprinkle with a few tablespoons of salt. Cover the eggplants with water, weighting them with a clean plate or bowl. Soak for about an hour.

Drain eggplants and cube them. Fry in small batches in a combination of olive and sesame oil along with 1 sprig of rue, the ½ cinnamon stick, and two coins of galangal. Remove the cooked eggplant to a bowl, quickly sprinkle with tamari, and sprinkle with a portion of nuts. You want to use up the cooked eggplant, tamari, and nuts all at the same time. Cover the bowl while cooking the eggplant.

While the eggplant cooks in batches, wash the leeks (onions). Chop the fleshy white and green parts, discard the roots and dark green tops. Chop a handful of fresh cilantro. In the same pan used for the eggplant, fry the leeks with the cilantro and second sprig of rue. When cooked, add as garnish to the cooked eggplants.

Recipe thoughts
Eggplant based dishes are among the few vegetarian dishes in Middle Eastern recipe collections. This one was selected because it is designed to be served cold; it is also easily kept food-safe during an afternoon-long reception.

There were several conscious substitutions in this recipe. Tamari was included for murri; Ceylon cinnamon for cassia cinnamon; green onion for leeks; pistachios for walnuts.

The original recipe calls for murri, a fermented barley sauce. The process to make murri is remarkably similar to soy sauce, and they both produce a similar dense, salty, umami flavor. While modern soy sauce, typically made with soy and wheat, would be closer to the original choice, using tamari is a simple substitution that makes this dish gluten free.

Fresh galangal can be found at many Asian grocery stores. It is a cousin to ginger, and grows in rhizomes with a redder color. Many cooks will substitute ginger when lacking in galangal, but they are distinctly different.

Similarly different spices are cassia cinnamon and Ceylon cinnamon. Like ginger and galangal, the two cinnamon trees are related. Ceylon cinnamon was always the more expensive and generally desired cinnamon in the Middle Ages, but its flavor is not as pungent. In the context of frying a stick of it with chopped eggplant, cassia would likely be more noticeable and it would break apart less in the cooking process (Ceylon cinnamon is more brittle and delaminates easier). However, lacking cassia sticks, I used Ceylon cinnamon as a substitution in this recipe.

As someone who has the “soap gene” (making fresh cilantro taste like freshly grated soap in my food), I find cilantro extremely distasteful. It appears regularly throughout Middle Eastern recipes. I will generally leave it in when I cook for other people; or I will include a small bowl of chopped cilantro on the table.

The simple motivation driving the change from leeks to green onions was local availability. Yes, I could find galangal in walking distance from my home, but not leeks. It is worth noting that other recipes will use leeks and green onions during different phases of a single recipe, so they were not always readily substituted for each other. However, the humoral properties are very similar.

We don’t keep walnuts around our house because my partner has a mild allergy to them. Pistachios are a good replacement for a few reasons. They express a flavorful note when ground and heated, as was the goal in the original recipe. They are also frequently recommended in other period recipes from this and other Middle Eastern recipe collections.

Despite several substitutions to this recipe, I believe this is an appropriate recipe for a Middle Eastern table. Many times recipes from this period the authors offer, “Or, if you do not have X on hand, you may use Y.”  None of the changes are radical, and the combination of the changes does not present a significantly different dish. I think it would be welcomed easily within the period tradition.

The dish was well received at the event.