I remember in the hungry Perestroyka years, when general populace was going back to its hunting and gathering roots due to raging food shortages, one of our country’s beloved stand up comedians performed this monologue about the proverbial Iron Curtain. The premise of it was that soviet people had experienced the pleasantries of the free world only through propagandist television — they traveled to far away places via Club of TV Voyagers, got to see the “decaying Western life” only in the movies, and grew to believe that while soviets are heroically battling the forces of nature, westerners are helplessly suffering its monstrous rages. “Enough!“, screamed the comedian, “enough seeing the world through the eyes of Senkevich [Club of TV Voyagers show host], and it’s time for us to find out that caviar comes not only from eggplants!”
And we loved him for this. We applauded his courage and sarcasm. And while I agreed with him in principle, I felt deep down in my gut that bashing the eggplant caviar was not very nice of him. For eggplant caviar, you see, was one of our most beloved summer dishes.
Eggplant caviar is a kind of salsa or chutney, if you will, made of eggplants, tomatoes, onions and a few easy-to-find seasonings. It’s very refreshing in the heat of the summer, and goes especially well with fried fish. Like any salsa, it gets better after some time allowed for flavor development and light pickling effect. You can eat it with the fork as a side salad, or put it on a slice of buttered rye bread. Of course, you can scoop it with chips, but the trick here is to find the chip that won’t hijack the delicate eggplant flavor. Pita or lavash chips, I think, would do nicely as well as crostini (toasted bread).
Not sure about the origins of this wonderful appetizer, but I have a feeling that it came to us from the Balcans, where eggplant is a staple and is served in myriads of ways.
Traditionally, eggplant caviar is made on a chopping board, using a cleaver or a large knife. Second best would be the old-fashioned meat grinder. Word of warning — putting eggplant in an electric food processor will result in bitter watery junk, so don’t even try. Trust me, I’ve done it before. You can roast the eggplant in the oven, or char it in a cast iron skillet over low heat — up to you; the result is approximately the same.
- 2 medium eggplants, fully ripe
- 2 medium tomatoes, fully ripe, preferably Roma
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 3-4 garlic cloves
- small bunch of flat leaf parsley or cilantro
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp vinegar
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- salt and pepper to taste
Roast eggplants whole, in the oven at 350F or in a skillet over low heat, periodically turning them to roast evenly on all sides. Take care not to pierce the skin. The eggplants should feel soft all over, charring is normal, it won’t hurt the final dish.
Let the roasted eggplants cool on a chopping board. Slice them open lengthwise, tilt the board and let the juices run off. Using a wooden spoon, scoop the roasted eggplant flesh out of the skin. Discard the skin.
Chop the tomatoes, onions, parsley/cilantro and garlic coarsely; add them to the eggplant on the board.
Using a cleaver or a large knife, chop all the vegetables energetically until they reach fine chunk state (like salsa). See photo for reference. It shouldn’t take more than 1-2 minutes.
Transfer the caviar into a serving bowl. Add olive oil, vinegar and lemon juice. Season to taste.
Mom always added tomato slices to the caviar, to give it more of a salady feel. Try it and see if you like that.
Allow 1-2 hours in a fridge for flavors to develop. Serve chilled, atop of mild flavored bread or crostini, or as side dish.