A Happy Medium, with Eggplant

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Eggplant Stewed in Honey and Spices 

 

Back when I was first getting my feet wet in the business of globetrotting, I traveled without any agenda whatsoever. Oh sure, I would read guidebooks and listen to advice from people on where to go, but as for what to do when I got there, I rarely had any plan other than to just ‘experience’. Normally that meant walking around aimlessly for a few days, finding some spots to people-watch, and writing up my impressions on postcards to send to people back home. I might see something famous if I could afford the entry ticket; I might eat something local if it fit into the cost parameters of my bread-and-cheese diet, but most important to me was the idea of just being there and seeing how life happened – how the ebb and flow of these places were different from the places I saw every other day of my life.

My method set me apart from normal tourists, I believed, who were all so busy rushing around following the advice of their guidebooks and ‘must-see’ lists that they missed out on what was really important. I, on the other hand, lived entirely for spontaneous discoveries and chance encounters, and I reveled in being so free from obligation and expectation.

It was liberating, sure. It was also kind of boring. 

At some point along the line, though, things changed. I got myself a traveling partner, I started having a little more money, and most important of all, my interest in food mushroomed out of control. I went from being aimless and agenda-free to being the world’s most compulsive trip-planner, only that instead of stuffing my suitcase with lists of museums and monuments, castles and cathedrals, I started filling them with lists of food. Particularly if it’s my first time visiting a place, I’ll spend weeks researching typical products, famous dishes and restaurants, markets and shops, and when I get there I’ll not let a minute go to waste in my attempt to cram it all in – both figuratively and literally. Of course I’ll often be able to squeeze in some more traditional culture as well (as long as it’s not an art museum – I’m pathologically allergic to those!), but admittedly that often happens only if said culture happens to fall along the path I’m taking anyway to my next food destination.

Our recent trip to Morocco, of course, was no exception. Thanks to some intensive internet and cookbook research, I knew everything there was to know about the dozen types of tagine, couscous and bisteeya I had to sample, the harissa, harira and charmoula, the mint tea and almond milk, the bread and pastries and dates and olives I had to track down in order to have the full Moroccan food experience. And for the ten days we were there I ate as many of them as I could find, stuffing myself like a Christmas turkey so I wouldn’t miss one not-to-be-missed morsel.

Imagine how foolish I felt, then, when it was my insistence on exhaustively completing my own list that nearly caused me to miss out on the best thing of the entire trip. While I was busy ploughing my way through one tagine after another, debating the superior fluffiness of this couscous or that while trying to save room for yet another platter of rich Moroccan pastries, that little section of the menu called ‘salads’ was going completely neglected. It wasn’t until one lunchtime when, flagging under the heat of the midday sun, I felt that I simply couldn’t stomach another rich dish laden with meat and honey and fruits and nuts, and so I opted for what I thought would be a plate with a light assortment of raw vegetables – you know, lettuce, tomato, onion, and maybe some carrots and olives. I was completely floored when what I actually received was a veritable banquet in itself: a dozen small bowls, each featuring a vegetable or two, each prepared differently yet complementing the others perfectly. Some were fried, some were boiled, some were raw; some were spicy, some were sweet; some were tart and astringent, others were rich and pungent, and all were absolutely delicious. I know because I finished every last one and then asked for more.

I should have guessed that Moroccans have, like so many cultures around the vast Mediterranean, a magic touch with the fruits of the earth. After all, it’s not the rich celebration dishes that tourists like me seek out that have formed the backbone of their everyday cuisine for centuries – it’s the dishes made from the abundant artichokes, tomatoes, pumpkins, zucchini, peppers, potatoes, and eggplant, nourished by moist breezes from two seas and ripened to perfection under the hot summer sun. But the similarities with other Mediterranean cuisines only extend so far, since whatever form these vegetables take – boldly spiced with ras-el-hanout or harissa, enlivened with slivers of preserved lemons or fresh herbs, even seductively sweetened with a drop of honey as in this knockout eggplant dish – the result is like everything else in this fascinating cuisine: exotic, delicious, and unmistakably Moroccan. 

Somewhere in this experience, I’m sure, there’s a lesson to be learned. If I had to put my finger on it, I would say that in travel – like in all things, really – a happy medium is best. Funny how it always seems to take going to both extremes before figuring that out.

Eggplant Stewed in Honey and Spices

I love eggplant in all its forms, but this is one of the best ways I’ve ever eaten it – meltingly soft, sweet, sour and spicy-hot. You can easily make this dish with baby eggplant, widely available in Asian or Middle Eastern shops, and if you like you can leave the stems attached – handy if you want to serve them as finger food. Also, if you have a grill you can easily cook them that way instead of in skillet – I imagine a smoky-charred flavor would add to the mix nicely.

Source: adapted from Modern Moroccan by Ghillie Basan
Yield: serves 4 normal people as part of an appetizer spread, or two eggplant lovers

2 large globe eggplants/aubergines, stemmed and thickly sliced, or 1 1/2 lbs (750g) baby eggplants, halved
salt
1/3 cup (80ml) (approx) olive oil
5 tablespoons (75ml) clear honey
juice of 1 large lemon
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon harissa or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
handful chopped fresh coriander/cilantro, for garnish

Lay the slices of eggplant out on a towel or cloth and sprinkle all the cut surfaces generously with salt. Let the eggplant disgorge for about 15-20 minutes, then wipe the pieces dry with paper towels.

Preheat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Brush both sides of each eggplant slice with olive oil and cook in the skillet, not overlapping the slices, until well browned on both sides. You’ll no doubt have to do this in batches. Remove the slices to a plate and set aside.

In a bowl combine the honey and lemon juice with about 2/3 cup (160ml) hot water, stirring to dissolve. Heat your skillet again, adding a little more oil if there is none left. Add the garlic and ginger, stirring for about thirty seconds, then add the cumin and harissa, stirring for about another thirty seconds. Stir in the honey-lemon water and bring everything to a boil.

Lay the eggplant pieces into the pan, overlapping if needed, and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, turning the pieces as necessary to ensure all are coated with the sauce, until i
t has been reduced to a thick glaze and the eggplant pieces are completely soft (add a bit more water if the sauce reduces before the eggplant is ready). Taste for seasoning and add salt as needed.

Let cool, sprinkle with a handful of chopped cilantro/coriander, and serve at room temperature with chunks of fresh bread, preferably as part of a meze or appetizer spread.

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