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All Eggplant, All the Time

March 03, 1994|ROSE DOSTI

When Bulent Basol, president of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, called to invite me to a Turkish meal of eggplant, I thought he was kidding.

He sensed my hesitation. " All eggplant," he said.

Another pause. "Really."

Then Basol, whom I had met at yet another Turkish food function some years back, explained what he meant.

"Eggplant plays an important role in Turkish cuisine," he said. "They say Turks have more than 100 ways of preparing eggplant. We want to show you some of the ways. It will give you an idea of how versatile eggplant can be, while introducing a very healthful food that is not terribly well known."

Aubergine , the French word for eggplant used almost universally in the food world, is indeed a healthful and beautiful vegetable with a purple color so subtle and exquisite as to inspire fashion designers from season to season. It has a history so glamorous, and cuisine so appealing--if you know how to use eggplant--it does give one pause.

Naturally, I accepted the invitation.

Eggplant is actually the fruit of a plant that originated in India and traveled East to Asia and West through the trade routes of the Middle East before making it to France in the beginning of the 17th Century. In Asia, eggplant is an important and popular crop, with China leading in production, followed by Japan, where slim, elongated varieties are preferred. Locally, eggplant is popular, but through much of the United States, it is still considered a specialty item, with the bulk of the crop coming from Florida, Mexico and California. Today, many varieties, from the large bulbous fruit to the tiny egg-size white eggplant and the long, thin, small eggplant, are available almost year round. Overall production is growing steadily, but in small increments. For instance, it's a fraction of the production of squash in the United States.

Eggplant will probably never become as popular in the U.S as it is in Asia or Turkey, but interest is growing. "As people understand that eating fresh fruits and vegetables promotes good health and fights cancer and heart disease," says Barbara Buck, chief executive officer of the Fresh Produce Council of California, "they will be looking for more ways to use exotic vegetables such as eggplant." Nutritionally, eggplant is extremely low in fat and calories (about 20 calories per 100-gram serving), and contains some protein, vitamins (A and B) and minerals (calcium and iron). Because of its meaty pulp, eggplant has long been used in main dishes, such as casseroles ( moussaka , for instance), stews and vegetarian meals.

It is said that when Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, was in Istanbul as guest of Sultan Abdulaziz, the Ottoman emperor, she became intrigued with a puree of eggplant that had been the specialty of the Topkapi Palace, home of sultans and harems for several centuries. She asked her host if he would allow his chef to teach her cook how to prepare it, and the sultan obliged.

But the French chef was given no measurements and asked to be relieved from the duty of making a dish that was cooked by "eye and nose." The empress returned to France without the recipe. Back at the palace, however, the dish was renamed in her honor. To this day, eggplant puree, a dish served as an accompaniment to stews and roast chicken, is called hunkar begendi , meaning "the sultan approved it."

No cuisine makes more glamorous use of eggplant than the Turkish. In the hands of Turkish cooks, eggplant takes on numerous guises, whether stuffed with rice and meat, laced with sauces, or combined with other vegetables in perfect flavor integration.

So I sat with Dr. Oguz Celikkol, the consul general of Turkey in Los Angeles, and Basol and his wife, Sema, sampling a parade of eggplant dishes from appetizer to salad.

"You realize, of course, that in Turkey, as elsewhere in the world, the most famous cooks have traditionally been men," said the consul with a teasing smile. But the consular household has a woman chef who prepared the dishes and emerged only long enough to set a plate on the table and serve the last beverage of the meal--a thick brew of Turkish coffee.

According to Sema Basol, who helped translate the cook's tips, frying the eggplant, even when it us used as a stew, helps impart extra flavor often lacking in boiled or baked eggplant. "Olive oil, particularly, gives eggplant a delicious flavor," said Basol. Another important tip: Soak eggplant halves or slices in salted water for 30 minutes to leach out bitter flavors before frying. "Most people object to the rather bitter taste of eggplant if not properly leached," she said.

Freezing eggplant, while possible, is not recommended, according to Basol. "Turkish cooking doesn't lend itself to freezing or prolonged refrigeration. We like our foods to be eaten freshly cooked. Standing in the freezer or the refrigerator will cause flavors and texture to deteriorate."

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