Where there’s smoke, there’s an Armenian blistered eggplant dip

Dayana Sarkisova

THE WASHINGTON POST – If you’ve ever been to an Armenian home for dinner, then you know we love to cook with fire. For Armenian immigrants in the diaspora, khorovats – or traditional Armenian barbecues – have played an incredibly important role in our stories. Not only are the feasts seen as a way to preserve and pass down old traditions, but they’re also joyful and celebratory occasions to introduce others to our culture.

My dad’s mangal, or open-fire grill, has been a staple of my upbringing, and the food my parents prepare over the open flame in our backyard is the first meal I look forward to whenever I visit home. And – ask anyone who has stepped foot in my house for dinner – my father is the authority when it comes to these cookouts. He can always be found behind a wall of smoke, spearing various cuts on his sharp shampoors and grilling them to perfection.

The accompanying grilled vegetables, however, are my mother’s jurisdiction. Anything seasonal makes its way to the flame, with eggplant and bell peppers being most traditional. These vegetables produce a dizzying array of side dishes, but my favourite is the whole-roasted eggplant – blistered over the flame until it collapses into itself like a delicious, dying star, then prepared and served tableside for everyone to fight over.

Using lavash, a flatbread popular in South Caucasus, Western Asia and the areas surrounding the Caspian Sea, my dad slides the eggplant off the spear and onto a platter, turning it over to my mom for the next step in the assembly line. She immediately takes a knife to the vegetable, opening it up right down the middle. In goes an array of spices and herbs, a drizzle of olive oil or a dollop of mayo, and some garlic. She whisks the ingredients into the flesh of the eggplant directly in its own skin, blending the ingredients with the flesh. The just-made dip is then passed around the table, and scooped and scraped communally. The process from fire to preparation to plate takes mere minutes.

When homesickness creeps in and I crave the food from my parents’ table, the whole-roasted eggplant is one of the dishes that immediately comes to mind. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly convenient (or legal) to own a traditional Armenian fire spit in my small city apartment.

Armenian Blistered Eggplant Dip. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

So, to re-create this dish given my lack of outdoor space, I’ve developed a recipe to incorporate the familiar, smoky and comforting flavors into a shareable, snackable dip. If made ahead and refrigerated overnight, the flavours develop and ingredients meld, which results in a thicker and more traditional dip texture. If made on the spot, the dip is juicy and slightly warm, evoking the same spontaneous presentation I’ve savoured off the fire countless times. It’s my go-to recipe when I want to share a taste of my culture with friends at a dinner party or potluck, just like my parents do – no open fire or sharp spears required.

ARMENIAN BLISTERED EGGPLANT DIP

Active: 20 minutes | Total: 1 hour 20 minutes

12 servings (makes about 3 1/2 cups)

Traditional Armenian barbecue, or “khorovats,” features an array of meats and vegetables roasted over an open fire. In the author’s family, whole eggplants are blistered until they collapse into themselves, then are cut down the middle tableside, whisked with aromatic ingredients and served as a side dish. This recipe riffs on that tradition for a crowd-pleasing dip. Although there’s less fire involved, the vegetable still shines.

Small eggplants are preferable to large, as they tend to have fewer seeds. If you use large eggplants and the texture of seeds bothers you, discard them during the peeling process. This recipe can easily be made vegan by omitting the mayonnaise and doubling the olive oil. Any separation is normal, and even good – it means plenty of delicious roasted eggplant juices have been retained.

The dip’s flavour is pretty garlicky, so if you’re garlic-averse, start with less and add more, if desired.

Storage Notes: The dip can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

Ingredients

Four small eggplants (three pounds total)

Two to three cloves garlic minced or finely grated

1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro

One tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

One tablespoon mayonnaise

One tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill

One teaspoon fine sea salt, or more as needed

One teaspoon ground sumac

1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Steps

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees with the racks in upper and lower thirds.

Pierce each eggplant lengthwise with a knife, then place directly on the higher rack in the oven. Place a baking sheet on the lower rack lower to catch any drippings. Roast the eggplants for 30 to 40 minutes, adjusting the order of individual eggplants with tongs halfway through to ensure even cooking. Once done, the eggplants should be soft when touched with tongs, and their skin should be blistered and crackerlike.

Transfer the eggplants to a wire rack for 20 minutes. Halve them lengthwise and let cool for 10 additional minutes.

On a large cutting board, scrape the eggplant flesh off the skin – it should separate easily. Roughly chop the flesh into 1-inch pieces, reserving as much of the eggplants’ juices as possible. Transfer the eggplant flesh and juices to a medium bowl.

Add the garlic, cilantro, oil, mayonnaise, dill, salt, sumac and pepper and whisk vigorously until well combined and the mixture reaches dip-like consistency. Taste and season with additional salt, if desired. Serve at room temperature or cold, with pita chips and crudites.

Nutrition

Calories: 50; Total Fat: 3g; Saturated Fat: 0g; Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 190mg; Carbohydrates: 7g; Dietary Fibre: 3g; Sugars: 4g; Protein: 1g.