Market in Turkey

By Elif Selvili

If you believe it’s possible for a nation to be in love with a vegetable, then you’ll understand how Turkey feels about the eggplant. Originally hailing from Southeast Asia, this curious purple vegetable has a starring role in Turkish cuisine and is served dozens of ways—hot, cold, healthfully, sinfully, fancily, plainly, sliced, cubed and stuffed—in dishes that often tout equally colorful names like hünkar begendi (the sultan liked it), karniyarik (split tummy) and imam bayildi (the holy man has fainted).


Like potatoes and tomatoes, eggplants are part of the nightshade family. They’re also related to the tobacco plant, which might explain the tobacco-loving Turks’ affinity for them. Although botanists dismiss the theory that eggplants have a gender, urban-myth followers disagree. If you look at the bottom of an eggplant, you’ll notice a tiny, light-colored mark in the shape of either a dot or a line. Myth has it that the dot means male and the line means female. Male eggplants are supposed to have fewer seeds than the females, which would make them less bitter. The stolid scientific view is that all fruits are female, and the differences in the markings only indicate possible incomplete pollination that leads to fewer seeds in the mature fruits. The bottom line is: try to pick a lighter, more slender eggplant over its Rubenesque mate to ensure fewer seeds and a sweeter taste.

Although eggplants grow robustly in our harsh Austin climate, many backyard gardeners are at a loss when it comes to turning the bountiful crop into an interesting dish. Here are four easy Turkish recipes that feature the eggplant in various roles: appetizer, side dish and main dish—you can visit our Recipe Section for more. All of the recipes can be prepared a day in advance and improve in flavor with time.

Stock-EggplantJapanese Eggplant (© ozgurdonmaz)

(Oven-Fried Eggplants with Yogurt Dressing)

For the eggplant:
4 Japanese eggplants (long variety)
½ c. olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste (plus
   additional salt to purge eggplant)

For the yogurt dressing:
1 c. yogurt (whole milk, thick
   varieties work best)
1–2 garlic cloves, crushed
½ t. salt

Preheat the oven to 400°. Peel ½-inch strips of the eggplant lengthwise, giving it a striped look, then slice the eggplants into ¼ inch rounds. Place the slices in a colander, sprinkle with salt to remove any bitterness and allow to purge for 15 to 20 minutes. Rinse the slices well and pat dry with a kitchen towel. Brush both sides of each slice with olive oil and place in a heavy-duty baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and bake for about 10 to 15 minutes. Turn the slices over and bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until soft and golden brown. Meanwhile, stir the yogurt dressing ingredients together in a bowl. Arrange the eggplant slices on a serving platter and serve chilled or at room temperature with the dressing. This recipe can be prepared a day in advance.

(Smokey Eggplant Salad)

The eggplants can be cooked directly over the stove, but they won’t have the same smoky flavor as those cooked on coals (see note below). The salad can be turned into a vegan dish by omitting the yogurt.

4 large eggplants (fat, oval kind)
3 large garlic cloves
1 c. yogurt (whole milk, thick variety)
¼ c. olive oil
1 lemon, juiced
Salt and pepper, to taste

Pierce the eggplants in a few spots with a fork and cook directly on hot coals in an outdoor grill, turning them with long tongs as the skin gets charred. If a coal fire is not possible, cook them directly on a gas burner or under a broiler, turning constantly. Eggplant skin is surprisingly tough and can handle the direct flames or coals without catching fire. Cook the eggplants until thoroughly soft (it’s better to overcook than undercook), approximately 15 to 20 minutes. Place them in a metal colander to cool. Press down gently on the eggplants to squeeze out as much of the juice as possible without breaking them apart.

Crush the garlic and mix with the yogurt, olive oil and lemon juice in a large bowl. Set aside. When the eggplants are cool enough to touch, peel them carefully, removing all of the charred skin (leaving even small pieces will create a bitter taste). Discard sections with a lot of seeds. Add remaining eggplant to the yogurt and garlic mixture and mash with a large fork or potato masher until there are no large lumps. The resulting mixture does not need to be completely smooth but should not have large, unbroken pieces of eggplant. Season with salt and pepper. Chill for 1 hour before serving.

Note: In order to cook food directly on hot coals, you should use either wood or natural lump charcoal, made with only pure hardwood. It burns hotter and faster than compressed briquettes, making it ideal for direct-heat cooking. Use a common chimney starter to light them up (don’t use lighter fluid). When the charcoal is glowing red, use a grill rake to level the coals, give a quick fan to blow off the excess ash and place the eggplants directly on the hot embers. Turning frequently with long tongs, cook until charred all around, which typically takes about 15 to 20 minutes.

(Eggplants Stuffed with PIne Nuts, Currants and Rice)

Dolma means “filled” and can be used to describe any stuffed vegetable. This recipe also works very well with bell peppers and large tomatoes and can be prepared a day in advance.

For the filling:
5 T. currants
3 T. olive oil
5 T. pine nuts
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 c. hot water
1 t. sugar
1 c. short-grain rice
Salt and pepper, to taste
½ c. chopped flat-leaf parsley
For the eggplant:
6 Japanese eggplants
   (long variety)
1½ c. hot water
¼ c. olive oil
1 t. salt
Lemon slices

Prepare the filling. Soak the currants in warm water for 20 minutes, then drain and set aside. Heat the olive oil in a large pan and sauté the pine nuts over low heat until golden. Add the onion and sauté until barely softened. Add the hot water, bring to a boil then stir in the currants, sugar, rice, salt and pepper and cook over low heat until the water is absorbed. Add the parsley and set aside to cool to room temperature.

Cut off about 1 inch from the stem side of each eggplant, and reserve the stems. Hollow out the eggplants, leaving about ¼-to-½ inch of shell—reserving the pulp. Stuff the eggplants with the rice filling and top with the stems. Spread the pulp around the bottom of a large pot, then place the eggplants on their sides on top of the pulp. Mix the hot water, olive oil and salt and pour over the eggplants. Cover with a plate to provide weight (this keeps the eggplants from getting too fluffy and bursting). Cook, covered, over very low heat until the eggplants feel soft to the touch, about 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool in the pot for about 1 hour. Transfer to a serving platter and decorate with the lemon slices. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.


(Baked Eggplants with Meat Filling)

The name of this tasty dish translates to “Split Tummy.” If you prefer a vegetarian version, omit the meat and add more onions and garlic.

6 Japanese eggplants (long variety)
½ c. olive oil
6 mild green peppers
Salt and pepper, to taste (plus
   additional salt to purge eggplant)

For the filling:
3 T. butter
1 medium onion, quartered
   and sliced
1 lb. ground turkey (traditionally
   beef or lamb)
6 garlic cloves, quartered
1 T. tomato paste   
2 large cans whole peeled
   tomatoes (approximately
   40 oz. total), drained and
   juice reserved
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 c. chopped flat-leaf parsley

Preheat the oven to 400°. Peel ½-inch strips of the eggplants lengthwise, giving it a striped look, then cut the eggplants in half lengthwise. Place the halves in a colander, sprinkle with salt to remove any bitterness and allow to purge for 15 to 20 minutes. Rinse the halves well and pat dry with a kitchen towel. Brush both sides of the eggplant slices with the olive oil and place in a shallow baking dish. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and bake for about 15 to 20 minutes. Turn the slices over and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until slightly browned and soft.

While the eggplants are baking, prepare the filling. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet and sauté the onion until slightly softened. Add the meat and stir, breaking up the larger pieces with a wooden spoon. Add the garlic, tomato paste and reserved tomato juice and salt and pepper. Cover the skillet with a lid and simmer over low heat for about 15 minutes. Add the parsley and turn off the heat.

Remove the eggplants from the oven and place in an ovenproof dish. Slice the tomatoes and reserve any juice this produces. Mound the filling onto the eggplant halves with a slotted spoon and top with the sliced tomatoes. Cut the peppers lengthwise into quarters and remove all seeds and membranes. Place one pepper slice over each eggplant half, top with any remaining tomato juice and bake for about 45 minutes. Serve warm.