For me, this recipe represents more than just a way of serving the probably most recognised of Middle Eastern dishes for me... I recently enjoyed my first visit to an Iraqi restaurant and the whole experience was an eye-opener. I was lucky enough not to jump into the cold water all by myself, I was actually guided and pampered by a very good friend of mine who hails from Iraq and therefore knows exactly what to order and can comment on the originality or authenticity of it all, something I would have completely missed had I gone alone.
The place we went to (Masgouf House in Knightsbridge) may be unassuming in terms of decor, the service could be friendlier and more forthcoming, but I enjoyed my visit there tremendously - and not just because of the wonderful spectacle that is the people-watching involved. I had expected the food to be much more exotic or foreign to what I know, but learnt that Iraqi cuisine is a mixed bag, leaning either to the Persian or the Turkish side - and what we enjoyed was decidedly the latter. Lots of grills, succulent pieces of chicken marinaded in saffron and yoghurt, the speciality of the house, Masgouf seabass, was a whole bass butterflied and seasoned with salt, pepper and tamarind, then skewered up and grilled in the wood-fired oven... very nice indeed. For starters we had kibbeh halab (rice balls filled with lamb mince - I am usually not too keen on lamb, but thoroughly enjoyed the taste of this), a "salad" which was basically a plate of big chunks of baby gem lettuce, spring onions, tomatoes and peppers, Khubz baked in the tannur, the most wonderful flatbeard I have ever eaten, and Baba Ghanouj.
Now, this Baba Ghanouj was very different from what I had enjoyed under the same name until then - for me, Baba Ghanouj was a paste of bland-tasting aubergines, seasoned with more or less garlic, always involving yoghurt and a drizzle of lemon juice but definitely nothing worth an entry in my diary, if I had one. The Baba Ghanouj at Masgouf House was an entirely different affair: it had such a wonderful smokiness and was so pleasantly creamy, as opposed to slimey, I also don't think it had much, if any, yoghurt. From what I could find in my internet research, the Iraqi way of making Baba Ghanouj is using tahini - an ingredient you don't find in Turkish Baba Ghanouj if my latest cookbook (turquoise) is to be believed.
So last week I tried my hand at Baba Ghanouj for the first time and boy, it was love at first sight (not sure the sentiment was returned, as I gobbled the whole pot up almost entirely on my own, getting really greedy with my fellow diners). I seriously charred those aubergines under the grill until the skin was hard and brittle, completely black, not just browned - I basically went as far as my smoke-detector would let me... then scooped the flesh out, chopped it up, mixed it with a good measure of tahini, just enough not to be overpowering or sticking to the palate, a good squeeze of lemon juice and just enough garlic. And I was rewarded with what I believe to be the best Baba Ghanouj ever. I could eat the whole pot for lunch without any help at all - Next time my friend Dabia comes over I will let her try my version to see if she, as an Iraqi, approves... if I can get myself to share, that is!
Baba Ghanouj (Iraqi style)
(serves 2 as a starter)
2 medium to large aubergines (eggplant)
some olive oil
2 cloves garlic (crushed)
1 heaped tbsp tahini
juice of 1 lemon
Cut the aubergines in half horizontally, brush the white flesh with olive oil, place skin-side down on a silicone baking mat and place under the pre-heated grill. Chargrill the aubergines until the skin is not only blistery, but properly burnt - don't worry about any smoke developing, go as far as your smoke detector will let you. You will be rewarded with a beautifully smokey flavour you won't forget. Ever.
When you feel they're burnt enough, take out of the oven and leave to cool. Scoop out the flesh, chop it with a knife or mash with a form, then combine thoroughly with the garlic and tahini. Season with salt and lemon juice to taste.
Enjoy with flatbread and vegetable sticks (carrots, cucumber, celery, spring onion, tomato...)