As a thirty-something eager to discover the exoticism of the land where East meets West, I visited Turkey on a trip that would irrevocably change the way I think about flavor. Somewhere between the grand bazaars of Istanbul and the bougainvillea-lined streets of Kas, a small seaside town on Turkey’s southwestern Mediterranean coast, I fell heavily in love with this country—and all of its eggplant dishes.
The vegetarian food of Turkey is light and lively, resplendent with spice, and bursting with color. Vegetables are the headline act in Turkish meze, the small plates of appetizers shared at the beginning of every meal. There is cacik, ground cucumbers mixed with yogurt, garlic, and mint; dolma, grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice; zeytinyağlı taze fasulye, green beans cooked in tomato, olive oil, garlic, and onions; and muhammara, a spicy red pepper and walnut dip. But it’s the silky eggplant meze plates that shine brightest in my memory.
Eggplant is central to Turkish cuisine and culture; there’s even a folkloric tale that tells of a time during Ottoman Istanbul when many houses burnt down due to unsuccessful attempts to fry eggplant. Today, fried eggplant remains a summertime staple. In fact, there are innumerable eggplant dishes in Turkish cuisine, all beautifully spiced and irresistibly aromatic. A few of my favorites include patlican salatası, a smoky grilled eggplant similar to baba ghanoush; şakşuka, an eggplant and tomato stew; and imam bayildi, a famous dish of eggplant stuffed with tomatoes, onions, and garlic.
This elegant salad is an emphatic nod to the celebratory eggplant dishes of Turkey. Velvety eggplant is paired with a tart-yet-earthy relish of toasted walnuts, cilantro, and pomegranate seeds. Toasting the walnuts brings out their full nutty, slightly bitter character, which plays well against the bright pomegranate seeds, which provide fresh bursts of juice and sweetness. The burrata brings unbridled decadence to this dish, providing an oozy, creamy backdrop for the eggplant and relish. If burrata is not your thing (although honestly, how could it not be?) or you can’t find any, there are many alternatives. You could opt for fresh mozzarella, a generous swipe of rich Greek yogurt or ricotta, a few flecks of goat cheese, or a dollop of tangy labneh. For those looking for a dairy-free option, you could enjoy it with cashew cream or, for a heartier alternative, serve on a bed of bulgur wheat or brown rice. When the weather is warm, grill your eggplant for an even deeper smoky flavor.
A Note about Eggplants: Eggplant, or aubergine as it is known in England and Europe, is a member of the nightshade family that also includes tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes. Many home cooks ask about how to choose the best eggplants, since they range so much in size and skin color. Generally, choose eggplants with smooth, shiny skin that are uniform in color and heavy for their size. Test for ripeness by lightly pressing a finger against the skin—if it leaves an imprint, the eggplant is ripe. Smaller eggplants tend to have fewer seeds and are, hence, less bitter. A green stem is a good indicator that an eggplant is ripe.
- 1 cup walnuts
- 1/2 cup pomegranate arils (from 1 pomegranate)
- 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
- 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 small garlic clove, finely minced
- Ground black pepper
- 2 pounds Japanese eggplant, sliced into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons za’atar
- Fine sea salt
- Ground black pepper
- 9 ounces burrata
How to Make It
Preheat oven to 300°F. Spread walnuts on a small baking tray, and toast in preheated oven 10 minutes. Set aside to cool. When cool, coarsely chop. Combine chopped walnuts, pomegranate arils, cilantro, pomegranate molasses, olive oil, garlic, and sea salt. Season with black pepper to taste, and stir to combine. Set aside.
Coat eggplant slices in olive oil, and sprinkle all over with za’atar and sea salt. Heat a grill pan over high. When hot, add eggplant slices in a single layer. Reduce heat to medium-high, and grill until charred on one side, 2 to 4 minutes. Flip slices, and grill until charred and completely tender, 2 to 4 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To serve, arrange grilled eggplant slices on a platter. Break burrata into large chunks, and place around eggplant. Season burrata with sea salt, and top with relish.