Aubergines

If one vegetable could sum up Turkey, it would be the aubergine. Originally from India, aubergines are sometimes referred to as the poor man’s meat. They pop up everywhere, prepared and cooked in infinite ways. During the Ottoman period, the Topkapi Palace alone was known to produce aubergines in forty different ways. Available all year round, they range from the bulbous and gourd-like to the long, slender variety which sometimes stretch to the length of a forearm. The rounder ones are good for grilling over charcoal, while the longer present a perfect shape for stuffing.

Many meze dishes require the softened flesh of grilled aubergines, which has a strong, smoky taste. To grill, the aubergines are placed either over hot charcoal or directly in the centre of a high gas flame. When grilled over charcoal the cooked skin toughens, which makes it easy to slit open and scoop out the flesh, whereas the gas flame burns the skin until it is almost papery, and more difficult to separate cleanly from the flesh. When you use the gas-ring method, it is easier to remove the skin from the flesh while holding the aubergine under a running cold tap. Then you squeeze it to drain off the excess water.

Before being fried, the aubergine is peeled lengthways in strips, like the stripes of a zebra, sliced or left whole, and soaked in salted water for an hour to soften the flesh and remove the bitter juices. As well as removing some of the tough skin, the ‘zebra stripes’ procedure allows the salted water to penetrate. If dealing with slices, you then squeeze them in the same way that you would wring a pair of socks, to remove the excess water.

Strings of dried aubergines hang in the markets like chunky necklaces and, once reconstituted in water, are stuffed with rice and cooked in olive oil or stuffed with whole chilli peppers and pickled, specialities of Gaziantep and Antakya in southeast Anatolia. And from Antalya comes an unusual speciality of aubergine jam, patlıcan reçeli, which, surprisingly, tastes of bananas.

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