As I have always said, food can be a glorious medium to break barriers and make friends from around the globe.
Such is my friendship with Feda Queen (isn’t it a beautiful name!). I have never met Feda or know much about her except that she hails from Lebanon and lives in Sydney. I also know that she is an amazing cook, willing to share her wealth of knowledge about Lebanese cooking to all those who wish to learn.
I ‘virtually’ met Feda on Facebook and was instantly drawn to her honest, down-to-earth, style of cooking. Soon, she became my window into the world of everyday Lebanese cooking. It was an eye-opener, really – my experience of the cuisine so far was based on memories of childhood tastes and a bunch of cookbooks.
Feda enjoys cooking for her family and she takes great pride in it in spite of having a full time banking career. She runs a small Facebook group, just a bunch of us who really want to learn Lebanese cuisine. No marketing, no unnecessary chit chats; just food in all its honesty for a bunch of us hungry souls.
Most of us would have heard of Baba Ghanouj – the eggplant and sesame seed dip which comes a close second to hummus in terms of popularity. This dip which is often a part of the mezze platter originated in the regions of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
I have made Baba Ghanouj plenty of times. In spite of being a ‘non-eggplant’ lover, I love the smoky, charred flavours that the eggplants lend to this creamy, slightly tangy dip. But Feda introduced me to a different version of eating Baba Ghanouj – topped with spiced minced lamb and toasted pine nuts.
My instant reaction on seeing this dish was WOW! That’s a complete dinner….some freshly baked pita and a fresh salad would make a great weekday dinner. This dish hardly takes much time and is a great way of bringing the family together. Don’t bother with individual plates; you have to eat it the Middle Eastern way. A big platter of Baba Ghanouj with the lamb and nuts, a bowl of salad and pitas on the side – all the family members coming together and sharing from a single plate, amidst plenty of talking, giggling and smiles. It’s such an enriching and happy experience.
Now this is a dish for both the vegetarians and non vegetarians. If you eat lamb, you can enjoy the whole dish but if you don’t, then you still have the Baba Ghanouj – a deliriously flavoursome dip with the smokiness of the roasted eggplants married with the creamy nuttiness of the tahina (sesame seed paste), some tanginess from the yoghurt and a good drizzle of olive oil and lemon. And top it off with some gently spiced lamb mince and toasted pine nuts.
To make Baba ghanouj:
1. 2 large eggplant/aubergine/brinjal (purple variety)
2. 1 big lemon
3. ¼ cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
4. 2 garlic cloves
5. Salt, to season
6. 1-2 tbsp natural yoghurt
7. ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
To make the minced lamb topping:
8. 500 gms of minced lamb
9. 2 medium onions, finely chopped
10. 1 hot red chilli, finely chopped
11. 2 large tomatoes, finely chopped
12. 1 tbsp tomato paste
13. 1 tbsp chilli paste/sauce
14. Salt, to season
15. Freshly milled black pepper, to season
16. 2 tbsp ghee/clarified butter
17. 2-3 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
To make the Baba ghanouj:
• Grill the eggplant till the outsides are really charred and the flesh inside has become soft. (I do it on the stove top but you can use an oven or a charcoal fire). Cover with a cloth and keep aside for 2 minutes.
• Peel the skin off while still warm; cut and chop the flesh roughly.
• Place in a mortar and pestle, food processor or grinder and add garlic, tahini, yoghurt and half of the lemon juice. Blend for a minute or two.
• Season with salt and check the taste. Add more tahini or lemon juice if necessary.
• Transfer to a large serving plate and drizzle the olive oil on top. If you prefer a creamier consistency, add the olive oil and blend again.
Note – Some households add parsley too though I didn’t.
To make the minced lamb topping:
• In a large pan, heat ghee and add the minced lamb; fry for a couple of minutes till it has browned lightly.
• Add the diced onions, followed by the rest of the ingredients except pine nuts. Fry till the tomatoes have broken down and the moisture absorbed.
• Toast the pine nuts taking care not to burn.
• Cool slightly and spoon over the baba ghanouj.
• Garnish with the toasted pine nuts.
Though a tabbouleh would have been a good accompaniment to the meal, I made an avocado salsa along with Lebanese pita breads to complete the meal.