I was propped up in an Iranian hospital bed, trying not to laugh or hiccup or sneeze because of the Caesarian’s stiches. Sitting by me was a beautiful Iranian woman, one of my students from the women’s college (yes, we WERE free to educate women in those days, 40+ years ago.) She was one of many who came to congratulate us on the birth of our daughter Elizabeth. “Khanam-e-Robinson,” she began, “I’ve made you some khoreshteh badamjan because I know you like it so much.” I lost her next few words as my befuddled brain tried to recall how I managed to incorporate my love for aubergine [eggplant] stew into a BA degree music course. I had never liked aubergines before we came to Iran, but I suppose if your cuisine is 6000+ years old, you will have learned how to tweak a taste or two. The Persians have. “Here it is” she said, “and you eat it right now.” I had just finished a hospital lunch, but could only receive the offered pot with gratitude, remembering that she had not only prepared the dish, but then travelled through Tehran’s traffic to deliver it. Tepid though it was, I ate it. All. As she was leaving she congratulated me again. “May the footsteps of the child bless your house”, she said. Sometimes the reasons we eat have little to do with physical nourishment.
This recipe comes to you courtesy of Claudia Roden (A New Book of Middle Eastern Food), Najmieh Batmanglij (A taste of Persia) and moi. Its beauty is that it’s made in two parts that don’t come together until the last 20 minutes of cooking. That means you can tuck the preparation in around other cooking you’re doing a day or two in advance, or interweave the two parts at the last minute. I’ve served this to people who “don’t like foreign food because it’s spicy”. This isn’t. I’m getting used to surprised comments like: “this is goodI”.
Part the First. The meat.
In a large heavy bottom frying pan, heat 2 tbsps oil (or butter and oil) and fry 2 chopped onions gently until soft and transluscent. Add 2 fat chopped garlic cloves and fry for 5 minutes more. Add 500 grams [1 lb. 2 oz] diced [cubed] lamb, and swish around a few times. Add 1 teaspoon ground turmeric, 1 tsp ground cinnamon (yes really), ¼ tsp ground nutmeg, and a pinch of ground saffron that has been soaked in 1 tbs of hot water. Salt and pepper – some recipes add quite a bit of black pepper. Add 75 grams [1/2 cup] red split lentils, two dried limes, split, or 1 fresh lime quartered, and 2 tbsp double concentrate tomato puree [1/2 cup pureed canned tomatoes]. Mix well. Pour over hot water to submerge everything, cover, and cook slowly for 1 hour or more until the meat is very tender.
Part the Second. The aubergines.
Cut off the green bits off two large (3 small) aubergines [eggplants] and spread out in one layer on plastic wrap. Sprinkle with salt and leave for 20 minutes. This draws out the bitterness. Rinse well, and dry with a clean tea towel [dish towel]. Oil 2 roasting pans well, and spread the slices in one layer. Brush the tops with oil. Bake in a fairly hot oven until cooked through, and brown-tinged, about 30 minutes.
Putting it together.
About half an hour before serving, heat the meat sauce in a hot oven. Add the aubergines. Serve with steamed rice. A side dish of plain yogurt flavoured with dried mint, cuddling sliced cucumber goes well.
Vegetarian option. Really??? Although lamb and aubergine complement each other so beautifully, both Lizzie (aforementioned baby) and I have been astounded by the rave reviews we get from our vegetarian friends when we cook the same dish without meat. I suppose you may want to plop in a can of chick peas to add substance.
Whether meaty or meat-free, this dish is much better the next day or the day after that. The Persians would say, “so that the flavours can hold hands.”