Food writer Frances Jones-Davies’ thoughts on how to make the best aubergine dip and why they often go wrong

One of the most enjoyable (maybe because it was the first) cook-alongs the Saucy Dressings team has organised over the lockdown was one delivered by chef Richard Lovemore (for an account of that, follow this link). All participants were enthusiastic about everything, and in particular we were intrigued by the idea of simply roasting an aubergine whole, in its skin – as Richard explained, it’s as if the vegetable provides its own natural foil, ultimately simple.

Then he went on to explain how to make an aubergine dip. And this dip had mixed success. For some it worked, for others not so.

It turned out the one of the participants, Frances Jones-Davies, was both a food expert (you can read her post on Welsh food if you follow this link), and also had spent some time living in Turkey. During the cook along she made the following interesting comment:

“My favourite dip was, is, the aubergine, but I know it is vastly improved by being done on the open flame, the flavour intensified in its smokiness, and the colour too, although it makes a horrible mess of the cooker! My grandparents lived in Cairo for a while and we grew up eating this. If you are having a barbecue it is really worthwhile putting a couple of whole aubergines on and cooking them well, burning all over, then put in a bag and keep for use the next day. Either like this or mashed into a Mornay sauce made with good Parmesan, traditionally served with beef slow-cooked with red peppers but also very delicious with roast chicken, Hunkiar Begendi, the sultan’s delight.”

So we asked her how, aside from a naked flame, we might be able to improve on the dip. This is her response.

Frances Jones-Davies’ thoughts on aubergine purée

The flavour – be careful not to undercook, use flame if you can, and squeeze out the bitterness

Good flavour is dependent upon being well cooked, the aubergine is the most delicious of vegetables, and it is in many ways very forgiving which makes it a wonderful ingredient to work with but one thing it won’t forgive is undercooking. 

The best way of cooking an aubergine for a puree or sauce is over an open flame, this will give a delicious smokiness and enhance the flavour; balancing two aubergines over the flame of your gas cooker is almost as good as a barbecue although a bit messy.  

While flame is best, they can be done successfully in a hot oven.  My mother makes a Baba Ganoush using her Aga that can stand up against any from the best of Lebanese or Turkish restaurants.  Rub the aubergine in olive oil and put it on a tray in a hot oven after 20 minutes or so turn it over, it must cook not until just soft but until soft to collapsing.  

Over an open flame, char and turn, char and turn, as it starts to ooze you know it is getting there.  It should be cracked and blackened, if you have time put it in a bag to cool and sweat, otherwise it is down to juggling under the cold tap.  All the blackened skin needs to be sloughed off, more easily done with cold running water to hand for rinsing, then the flesh wrung out and as much juice as possible expelled, you can press the juice out through a sieve.  Some would say this is no longer necessary, before hydroponic farming and varieties bred without bitterness it was.

Often disasters in the kitchen can be salvaged, the offending article turned into something else, a bit of imagination can result in a triumph.  But not always, many years ago I had the most delicious aubergine dish with neighbours in Istanbul, they spoke very little English my Turkish was of the same ilk, following an expansive discussion I went home keen to recreate, the result was completely inedible, horribly bitter.  I hauled my husband, a fluent Turkish speaker, down to their apartment to go through it with them.  I had pretty well got it right except for squeezing out the liquid.  Despite new farming methods and varieties developed without bitterness meaning this isn’t technically necessary any more, I still always salt aubergines or wring them out, partly nostalgia and habit but also the knowledge that the end result still has better flavour and fries better. 

“I hauled my husband, a fluent Turkish speaker, down to their apartment to go through it with them.  I had pretty well got it right except for squeezing out the liquid.” 

The texture – we like a bit of rough

You can just mash the aubergine with a fork, and crush the garlic with a press, it won’t be completely smooth but that doesn’t matter at all, this is the texture I am used to.  A hand blender works well, you can control how smooth or not you like it, just add a spoonful of the aubergine to your garlic and make sure that is whizzed absolutely smooth before adding the rest of the ingredients and blend to the required texture, or you can mix and pound in a pestle and mortar. If you want to use this method start with the garlic and salt.  Whatever method you have used, tip the end result into a bowl and taste, this is the time to balance the flavour.   

What about the proportions of the different ingredients?

One can’t be exact about quantities: lemons vary in sharpness as well as size; garlic cloves in size and pungency.  Taste as you go, it is a question of balance.  A bit bland – add a bit more lemon, garlic and salt; too sharp – another glug of olive oil and perhaps a soupçon more salt; too salty – a bit more lemon and oil, perhaps some yoghurt. If you don’t have yoghurt,  cream works well.  

Drizzle your end result with some good olive oil, sprinkle with finely chopped parsley, and a pinch of ground cumin, if you like.  

Transforming the dip into Baby Ganoush by dint of tahina… or not

When I left home, one of the first cookbooks my mother gave me was Claudia Roden’s Middle Eastern Food, the recipes interwoven with history, anecdotes and plenty of good advice (go here for more about Claudia Roden, and how she explains her approach to cookery writing).  

Roden talks of aubergine purée ‘sometimes called ‘poor man’s caviar’, as sensual, vulgar, earthy.  The colour, the feel, the smooth heft of it in the hand must make the aubergine the most sensuous of vegetables.  Unlike many other vegetables, even when its bloom of youth is gone, its lustre lost, no longer firm, it still cooks well and tastes good.  

The purée is wonderfully versatile, a great mezze dish with drinks or as a starter but also as part of a summer buffet; a vegetable sauce with roast chicken or lamb kofte.

“The colour, the feel, the smooth heft of it in the hand must make the aubergine the most sensuous of vegetables.”

More about Baba Ganoush – ‘spoiled daddy’

Baba Ganoush is an aubergine dip which appears throughout the middle east. Wikipedia translates the name from the Arabic to mean ‘spoiled daddy’ although it’s not clear if the ‘spoiled daddy’ is the aubergine, or the eater.

Technically Baba Ganoush doesn’t have to include tahina – but it must have garlic and lemon.

So here is Richard’s recipe, with one or two tweeks to ensure more consistent success.

What can you do with aubergine purée?

  • Matt Tebbutt suggests serving with with sweet potatoes, wild rice, spring onions and spinach
  • Adam Handling serves his with burrata and freshly pickled dill
  • serve with roast chicken instead of potato
  • as a dip with flatbread of one kinds or another
  • as a sauce with pasta
  • Ottolenghi thins it out with yoghurt to make a dressing for cos lettuce, topped with crunch (a mix of toasted sourdough breadcrumbs, Urfa pepper flakes, pumpkin seeds and chopped almonds)
  • Belazu suggests mixing its black tahini with hummus or baba ganoush
baba ganoush recipe
If it still tastes a bit bland add some chopped sun dried tomatoes.

Music to listen to

It has to be Marilyn Munroe singing My Heart Belongs To Daddy.
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