Welcome, culinary travelers, to the Republic of Veggiestan. That’s the imaginary country named by British author Sally Butcher in “The New Middle Eastern Vegetarian” (Interlink Books, 2012), a cookbook that demonstrates a love of vegetarian cooking, a deep understanding of the flavors of the Middle East and a wicked sense of fun.
Butcher is known in the United Kingdom for her first cookbook, “Persia in Peckham.” A former chef, she married into an Iranian family and fell deeply in love with its culinary heritage.
In Butcher’s Veggiestan, being a vegetarian does not mean “tofu all the time and always having to say you’re sorry.” (Butcher, at any rate, is not sorry. Plus, she’s not a vegetarian; she occasionally eats meat.) It is a place where hummus is “not the only career option for the self-respecting chickpea,” where eggplant is “bursting with more potential than an ‘American Idol’ finalist,” and where pumpkins are “too much fun to be the preserve of October ghouls.”
The Veggiestan of Butcher’s experience is a land of tradition and innovation, a place of joy, energy and really tasty food.
It was hard to pick a recipe, and it’s no accident that this eggplant “burani” — created by chefs to delight an ancient, yogurt-loving Mesopotamian queen — is at the beginning of the book. This is a volume to cook your way through, one delicious mouthful at a time.
Note: In the United Kingdom, Butcher’s book is titled “Veggiestan: A Vegetable Lover’s Tour of the Middle East.” It has a multicolored cover that is reminiscent of a Persian carpet. The American edition has the changed title, and the cover features a photo of food.
It’s not unusual for publishers to change titles and covers, but I wonder if these changes say something about American cooks. Are we more literal? Less familiar with Mideastern cooking? Culturally wary of a title with “-stan” in it?
Afghan yogurt with eggplant
Yield: 4 servings
For the sauce:
2 scant cups thick, plain, strained yogurt (see note)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 to 6 garlic cloves, minced
Handful of fresh chopped mint (or 2 teaspoons dried mint)
Salt and pepper
For the eggplant:
3 large eggplants, washed and stemmed
Canola oil, for frying
1 large onion, chopped
4 green chilies, stemmed, seeded and chopped
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
4 tomatoes, chopped (or use 1 28-ounce can)
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped
Naan bread (available in many supermarkets and specialty stores)
Make the sauce: Blend yogurt and lemon juice in a bowl. Stir in garlic and mint, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
If you are a “purist,” peel the eggplants and slice them about ¼ inch thick. Sprinkle generously with salt, place in a colander and let sit to “sweat” for at least 30 minutes. Rinse and wipe dry.
Heat about 3 tablespoons oil (Butcher calls for “a slosh”) in a deep frying pan with a lid, and sizzle onion and chilies until onions are soft. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add a bit more oil to the pan and fry the eggplant slices so they are gently browned on both sides. Sprinkle with turmeric. Add tomatoes, ¾ of the cilantro (reserving the rest for garnish) and onion mixture. Add a little water to the pan (so the ingredients are more or less covered), turn heat to low, cover and let simmer about 30 minutes. (Keep an eye on the liquid level, adding more water if needed.)
To assemble: Check the seasoning of the eggplant — you may need to add salt. Spoon half the yogurt across a platter, spreading it to get good coverage. Layer eggplant slices on top, followed by the rest of the yogurt. Scatter remaining cilantro over the top and serve immediately — even as you are arranging the hot and cold elements, they will start to leach into each other. Serve with naan or rice.
Note: Butcher’s recipe calls for homemade yogurt (“across the Middle East, the average housewife would consider it very odd — decadent, lazy — to buy yogurt,” she writes), and she offers a recipe. But if you (like me) are decadent or lazy, use any of the thick Greek or Middle Eastern yogurts sold in supermarkets. If using regular plain yogurt, let it strain through a cheesecloth-lined sieve for about an hour so it thickens.
Recipe from “The New Middle Eastern Vegetarian: Modern Recipes From Veggiestan” by Sally Butcher (Interlink Books, 2012)
Marialisa Calta is a syndicated food writer who lives in Calais.MORE IN Food & Dining
- Most Popular
- Most Emailed
- MEDIA GALLERY