I fell in love with Middle East food while in high school. I had an Argentinean friend whose mom was from Syria and he introduced me to its wonders. That was love at first bite.
I still remember the name of the restaurant where I got my initiation in Caracas: El Rincón del Medio Oriente (The Middle East Corner). There, all the flavors seemed to be so different than those my young palate was used to, but not only the flavors: also the textures, the colors, the ingredient and the way they were combined…
Then, while I was in college, two wonderful things happened in my home town. The first one: Amira, a tiny shawarma shop, opened walking distance from my school (Universidad Central de Venezuela) ‘democratizing’ pita bread, tahini, hummus, falafel, orange blossom water, baklavas, ice tea with honey and cinnamon, and coffee with cardamom.
The second one, in 1983, the Caracas subway connected the west side of the city, by then unknown for me, with the east side. So, I discovered the ‘Arabians’ (as we used to call all people come from the Middle East) pastry shops in Catia Boulevard, whose quality was comparable to the one of those memorable Middle East pastry shops in London.
Middle East food has become part of my diet since then. I started to make my own hummus and tabouleh regularly. While living in Caracas, it became mandatory to go once a week to the Damasco (the Spanish name for Damask,) a tiny modest restaurant serving the best Middle East food ever.
When recipes became available through the Internet, I decided to master the art of the vegan side of Middle East food by trial and error. Today’s Baba Ganoush, literally eggplant paste, is the first post of a series.
This smoky, smooth and tasteful eggplant, garlic and tahini spread is so good that it’s also known as eggplant caviar. The secret to get that smokiness, is to char the eggplants on a gas stove or in a grill. Some people bake the eggplants after charring them, and some people only bake them.
I only charred them, and the more I let them stand after that, the more the smokiness of the skin gets into the pulp. Here is my recipe!
Baba Ganoush | Ingredients for 2 cups
4 medium or 8 small-sized eggplants
3 garlic cloves smashed
3 tsp. of fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup of tahini
Coarse sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil
1 mint sprig
Prick the eggplants and char them on a grill, covered, for about 20-25 minutes until they are uniformly charred. Let them cool and stand for at least one hour (I love to let them stand overnight.) With your fingers, split the eggplant and scrape out the pulp with a spoon. In a food processor, puree this pulp with the garlic, tahini and lemon juice. Salt to taste. You may like to add more lemon juice. This paste can be kept in an air tight container in the refrigerator for a week. Before serving, spread it on a dish, garnish with the mint sprig and add some drops of olive oil. Serve with pita bread.1