November 23, 2016
Moroccan Eggplant Salad/Dip: Zaalouk
One of my favourite dishes from Marrakech was an eggplant salad called Zaalouk (also spelled Zalook, amongst other variations). Moroccan cuisine is very big on salads, both raw and cooked, and this is a particularly popular one. Although you can find zaalouks made from other vegetables than eggplant, it does seem to be the one most commonly seen in the wild. Sometimes it simply showed up unannounced alongside whatever tagine I had ordered, and sometimes I selected it (along with one or two other options), from a menu. Every time it was a little bit different, and every time it was delicious.
It's pretty easy to make although it does take a bit of time, but since it is usually served either cold or at room temperature, you can make it in advance. The preparatory stages up to frying the eggplant are pretty much the same as the Turkish Eggplant Casserole that I was raving about last summer (and still make often), and it's not impossible that both dishes are related to the Afghani dish Burani Bonjon. It's flavour profile is quite different from Baba Ghanoush, the eggplant dip/spread that North Americans seem most familiar with these days, but it can fulfill a similar role.
This recipe was adapted from Fleur d'Oranger, Masala & Co's traditional recipe. I made mine a bit coarser, because that was the way I usually received it in Marrakech, but really you can make it as coarse or as smooth as you like. This makes a small batch, but can be easily doubled.
Eggplant (Aubergine) Zaalouk
Serves 2 - 4
1 medium, firm eggplant
Kosher or coarse sea salt
Olive oil (about a quarter of a cup, total)
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
1 cup canned diced tomatoes with juices
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 tablespoon (sweet) paprika
1/2 teaspoon pimentón de la vera (or other smoked paprika)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
small handful cilantro leaves (optional)
Prepare the eggplant by removing the cap and slicing lengthwise into 1/2 centimetre thick slabs. Dissolve a generous tablespoon of salt in hot water, and then add cold water until you have about six cups in a large bowl. Add the eggplant slices and allow them to brine for 10 minutes, or up to 8 hours (cover them with a plate or otherwise keep them submerged in the brine as much as possible). Drain, rinse, and press the slices firmly with paper towels or fresh linen towels to dry them out.
In a large skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat until it just shimmers. Tilt the pan to ensure the bottom of the pan is well coated. Have a receiving plate standing by. Brush the first few (dried, pressed) slices of eggplant with olive oil, and fry them in batches, repeating with a little extra olive oil added between each batch, until golden on each side and very soft - about three minutes per side, depending on your heat level. Remove them to the nearby plate as they finish to make room for the next pieces.
Into the empty skillet, heat a bit more olive oil, and add the diced onion and sauté until soft and translucent. Add a good pinch of salt, and stir through. Add the tomato paste and stir through. Add the spices and the tomatoes with their juices, and stir through, lowering the heat to medium-low, and continuing to stir, scraping the bottom of the pan clear as you go. Cook and stir for about another five minutes. If you want to add a hot chile pepper or even just a pinch of pepper flakes, now is the time to do that.
Place the fried eggplant on a clean cutting board, and chop roughly. Add the eggplant back into the skillet, along with any accumulated juices/olive oil that might cling to the cutting board or plate. Add the cilantro, if using. Stir everything together and continue to cook, breaking up pieces and mashing lightly with your spoon or spatula. If it looks too dry, add a bit more olive oil.
When everything is nice and tender and any excess water has evaporated, about 10 minutes if you fried your eggplants thoroughly, remove from the heat and scrape into a serving bowl (taste-test a piece of eggplant to make sure it's cooked through with no hint of raw flavour). If you prefer a smoother dip, you can blitz it quickly in a mini-prep or with a stick blender or even vigorous use of a potato masher. Add a tiny drizzle of olive oil to the top, and set aside to cool. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate if not using within an hour or so.
Excellent on flatbreads or crackers, or on any plate-side. I tend to use it almost like a chutney, dolloping it onto my plate alongside other dishes.