Every decent taverna in Greece has a category on their menu called alifes (αλοιφές), or “spreads” in English. It usually includes popular choices such as tzatziki, skordalia, taramosalata, tyrokafteri, melitzanosalata and more. We treat these dishes either as mezes, to be paired with a variety of other small plates for the main meal, or as dips, which we normally order as an appetizer to start the meal.
One of my favorite dips is melitzanosalata, made with roasted eggplant. Believed to originate in Southeast Asia, the eggplant was not used in Greece before Ottoman rule. Its cultivation and use gradually became widespread in the Mediterranean region during the Ottoman period; nowadays, the eggplant is a staple ingredient of Greek cuisine, as evidenced by dishes such as moussaka, papoutsakia and briam.
Variations on roasted eggplant dip are common across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. While the Middle Eastern takes often include tahini (namely baba ghanoush), in Greece they are usually made just with olive oil and lemon or vinegar, although sometimes yogurt or mayonnaise is added for a milder, creamier result. Often roasted sweet red peppers are included but you’ll sometimes also find sundried tomatoes and olives, too. Chopped fresh herbs are a must.
The secret to melitzanosalata is roasting the eggplant until its skin is charred, in order to give the dip its smoky flavor. You can throw your eggplants whole on a barbecue, turning them to cook evenly, or you cook them directly on the open flame of a gas cooktop. These methods work best for the smoky flavor we’re looking for. But if you don’t have access to an open flame or barbecue, the easiest (and most common) method is to broil them in the oven. You must keep the eggplant whole as it is, stem on, and pierce it all over with a fork to prevent it from exploding while it cooks! Once the eggplants are charred, soft and wrinkly, they are ready to use.
Another important tip is to let the eggplant strain well before you blitz it. If the final result is too loose, you can always mix in a couple of teaspoons of breadcrumbs, but if you allow it to strain well that will not be necessary.
I make lots of different variations on this recipe, often depending on how I’m planning to use it. The recipe I’m sharing here is easy to make and very versatile – I even sometimes use it as a side for fish or mixed with pasta. I also love it in sandwiches, as eggplant pairs great with several lovely cheeses such as feta, manouri and haloumi.
5 medium eggplants
3 spring onions, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
60 ml lemon juice
2 tbsp chopped celery stalk
2 tbsp chopped fresh mint
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp Greek yogurt
1 tbsp red bell pepper, diced
1 tbsp green bell pepper, diced
2 tbsp chopped green olives
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil + extra to serve
1 tsp ground cumin
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat your broiler at 375 F / 190 C. Wash eggplants and pat dry. Pierce them with a fork all over and place them on a baking tray on the top shelf. Broil for 30 minutes, then flip them and broil them for another 20 minutes, until they go very soft and the skin turns wrinkly and charred. (To do it over an open flame, stick a large fork in the eggplant and hold it over the fire until it goes very soft and the skin turns wrinkly and charred.)
Remove from the oven and allow them to cool for 15-30 minutes. Once cooled down and easy to hold, carefully scoop out the softened eggplant from the charred skin using a spoon and discard most of the seeds (if there are any). Place on a colander, add salt and allow the insides to strain for at least 10-15 minutes. Gently press them with your hands to remove any excess water and finely chop them or pulse them using a food processor (I usually pulse them but don’t cream them entirely, as I like the dip to be a bit chunky when I eat it).
Place the eggplant into a bowl and add in the chopped scallions and garlic, the peppers, the olives, the yogurt and the herbs. Mix well. Gradually add in the olive oil, and then add the lemon juice, cumin, some pepper and adjust the salt if necessary. Mix well with a spoon. Transfer into a bowl, drizzle with some extra olive oil, and serve. You may enjoy it warm or chilled.
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