Thursday, August 16, 2012

Russian Eggplant "Caviar"

I recently lost my main Russian grocery hookup when the last of my stepmother's family pulled up roots from their largely Russian Northeast Philly neighborhood. Our shared background in Russian Studies has been a major bonding point for us. I first met her shortly before I started studying Russian towards the end of high school and she was a big part of my reassuring my parents that it was perfectly fine to send me off to Central Asian parts of the former USSR back in 2002, based on her own experiences in the USSR in the late 70s/early 80s (my parents have never leaned towards being overprotectively alarmist, but anywhere ending in -stan raised a high eyebrow that close to 9/11 and the beginning of US involvement in Afghanistan). A couple times a year, she'd call to say, "Hey, I'm going to visit my mom for a few days. You want anything from Bell's?" (referring Bell's Market, the go-to Russian store in Philly). We'd go on for a few minutes about all the different kinds of frozen dumplings, smoked fish, cold salads and baked goods available there, which inevitably turned into reminiscences of particular meals and dishes from our travels. Every culture has its notable culinary adventures, but Russian culture in particular seems to keep the kitchen table at its heart. I'm reminded of a toast in honor of the kitchen table from Dennis Danvers's novel, The Watch:
"The Kitchen the site of all that's best in Man—his sociability, his intellect, his good humor, and his generosity—not a monument to death but a celebration of living, not the theft of life but its sharing, not the jingoistic cant that generally passes for history but here and now, together in solidarity, this very moment! I give you: The Kitchen Table!"
This toast is delivered by none less than Peter Kropotkin, or at least a fictional, time-traveling version of him, though I could imagine a similar proclamation coming from the man himself.

In any event, one of the Russian specialties that we always lingered over was баклажанная икра (bak⋅la⋅zhan'na⋅ya i⋅kra'), which literally translates as, "eggplant caviar." For all that it's called "caviar," baklazhannaya ikra is a totally vegan "salad" (Russian salads rarely involve leaves) made of eggplant, tomato, pepper, onion and carrot slow-cooked together to savory perfection and seasoned with the only two herbs that really matter in Russian cuisine, dill and parsley (in Russian, respectively, укроп, "u⋅krop'" and петрушка, "pe⋅trush'ka").
It's almost the culinary equivalent of onomatopoeia; it tastes about as exotically rich as the word sounds. For all that this is a quintessentially Russian dish, it's also a fun opportunity to track cultural influence by following words from one language to another. The word baklazhan almost certainly has its roots in the Persian name for the vegetable, بادمجان (bademzhan), or, more accurately, on older Indo-European precursor. From Persian, it got borrowed into Arabic as باذنجان (badenzhan), was borrowed into Turkish from Arabic as patlıcan (pat⋅lə⋅dzhan'), and likely from that point entered Russian as baklazhan. A stunning range of languages name the vegetable based on one of these four words. Even aubergine is a francophone adaptation of al-badenzhan. Now imagine a person traveling, carrying this word on that same journey, beginning in the fields of Shiraz, traveling to the marketplaces of Baghdad, Aleppo and Istanbul before landing on the northern and eastern shores of the Black Sea in Russia and the Ukraine (which is actually Russian for "near border"), absorbing a little bit of the flavors of each place. It's amazing what the phonetic features of a single letter in a word can reveal. If you ever wonder why linguistics, this is why: with the power of linguistics, two minutes on Google Translate can turn a vegetable into a minor historical epic.

Ok, enough about the words, let's get to the food. When made in Russia, it's often made in great quantity for canning; my Russian host family in Kazakhstan made upwards of 5 quarts the one time I made it with them. I never got sick eating theirs, but it has far too little acidic content for me to consider it safe for canning without a pressure-canner at this point, so quantities like that are a bit excessive. It's a simple but time-consuming process involving a lot of slow cooking (roasting the eggplant, pepper and onion, simmering all the ingredients together). I haven't experimented with doing the long, slow final simmer in the crock pot, but maybe I should. If you get there before I do, let me know how it works out.

    Russian Eggplant Caviar (Баклажанная Икра/Baklazhannaya Ikra)

    vegan, grain/gluten-free

    To roast:

  • 1 med. European (fat) eggplant or 2 med. Asian (skinny) eggplants
  • 1 med.-large onion
  • 1 med.-large sweet pepper
  • The Rest:

  • 1 large tomato or about 2 c. smaller tomatoes, large dice
  • 1 med. carrot, grated
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½-¾ c. mixed parsley & dill, roughly chopped
  • salt & pepper, to taste
Prep the vegetables for roasting: the pepper can be roasted whole as is, the onion needs to be halved and peeled, and the eggplant needs to be halved and/or poked a couple times with a fork so that it can vent steam. If you don't poke the eggplant, you risk having it burst open and look like a prop from Alien, as in the following photo:
It is hilarious when it happens, but for better or worse I can't promise you that it will happen if you don't vent the eggplant. Put the vegetables on a baking sheet and put in a 375° oven until the eggplant starts to look deflated and feels soft when poked. Olga at Sassy Radish, who has her own compelling story about this dish and deserves some credit for the proportions here, says her Russian mother describes this as the eggplant looking "sad," which is a strikingly apt description. The eggplant will take the longest of these to roast - 45 min to an hour depending on size, but the pepper and onion won't be harmed by being in that long.

This gives you plenty of time to have the rest of the ingredients ready. If using a slicing tomato, cut into a large dice. For this batch, I used mostly small plum tomatoes and supersweet sungold cherry tomatoes, which I simply quartered. Grate the carrot, mince the garlic, and roughly chop the herbs. Once the roasted veggies are
out and cool enough to handle, get those ready, too. The onion and eggplant simply need to be whacked up into a large dice. A lot of recipes have you remove the skin from the eggplant, which isn't difficult after roasting, but I don't feel that the recipe gains anything doing so. Halve the pepper and remove the stem and seeds and chop roughly.

Load the vegetables and about half the herbs into a large saucepan and cook over a low heat for 1-2 hours, until the ingredients meld into a unified mass. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and add the reserved half of the herbs. Cool as long as you can stand it. This tastes best at room temperature or slightly below. Serve with a good, stout bread as an appetizer or, in true Russian form, as a nibble with drinks. You will probably also end up eating it by the spoonful, because it's just that good.


  1. Just came across this post, and it was a great read! I love baklazhannaya ikra. I don't knowing I'll ever make it, but if I do, I'll use your recipe! It'll be fun to compare it to the one my mom uses :)

  2. I was looking for the correct spelling in Russian for Eggplant Caviar to put at the top of a recipe an old girl friend's father(who is Russian) gave me years ago...and I came across your recipe! I had the spelling for baklazhan, but not the caviar part! I thought he had just added that part on his own(he had a great sense of humor). Was pleasantly surprised to see your recipe! I had just made some for myself and a friend last week! His is the same, but did not include the sweet peppers, parsley, or dill. I may try those in it the next time I make it. Thanks for sharing!



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