I sometimes feel Lebanese Mutabbal, also referred to as “Eggplant Dip,” is somewhat misunderstood by foodies less familiar with the Middle Eastern culture. I watched a video the other day on the YouTube channel of one of America’s famous chefs, and I felt a strong urge to start my “Illustrated Middle Eastern Recipes” blog series with Mutabbal. From a cultural point of view, it was weird seeing her serve Mutabbal as a standalone dip with toasted pita bread on the side.
Where this dish originates, Mutabbal is seldom served on its own. It is part of a culinary system that places it within two different contexts, one being the Lebanese “Mezza.”
Although Mutabbal (in Arabic) is commonly referred to as Eggplant Dip (in English), it’s not really a dip. It is more like a cross-breed between a spread, a dip, and maybe a chutney (and non of the above). Served within its intended gastronomic context, Mutabbal’s peculiar flavours can contribute to an exciting play on the senses that involves other flavours from other dishes.
Mutabbal on its own, to the native Middle Eastern foodie, is like serving beef burgers without the patty.
Just like we need to understand what “Anti-pasti, Primo, and Secondo” are, to form a better understanding of the Italian cuisine, Arabic food has its own rationale that needs to be taken into consideration in order to savour its flavours as authentically as possible. That is, if that’s what you are after.
Two ways to serve Lebanon’s Eggplant Dip
Mutabbal is a staple dish in the Lebanese cuisine, usually served as part of “Mezza,” which is an elaborate assortment of appetisers that can be laid out on the table as a standalone feast. However, Mezza is usually introduced as a prelude to a meatier Lebanese barbecue meal.
The latter is the more common approach to serving Mezza, which also includes dishes like Fattoush (salad with fried pita bread), Sujuk (sausage), grilled Halloumi cheese, pickles, Muhammara (a hot pepper “dip”), and other scrumptious starters.
But Mutabbal can also be singled out of the Mezza conglomerate and served as a “side dish” next to certain foods that go well with it, like Kibbeh (minced meat in a shell of mashed meat and bulgur). That’s where it serves as an accompaniment to Kibbeh, and as a flavoursome enhancer of this authentic Lebanese dish.
Like many other dishes in the Levant, Mutabbal has made its way to other neighbouring cuisines, including the Jordanian and Syrian ones. The food landscape in the Middle East is very much a shared terrain with strong influences coming together from the Turkish, Armenian, and Lebanese/Syrian cuisines.
But each country, and even every small town and village, seems to have its own interpretation of any of these dishes. The Palestinian cuisine for instance is a hybrid between the Lebanese and, to an extent, the Egyptian cuisine and often offers its own trademark twist to known Lebanese dishes.
Mutabbal: The Recipe
In our household, we make Mutabbal with grilled eggplant, garlic cloves, Tahini, yoghurt, olive oil, and parsley for garnish. I’ve seen other recipes that suggest adding a dab of lemon juice, which is also an interesting addition that you may want to try.
- 1 medium-sized eggplant (roast 2 eggplants if you are inviting people over)
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed (optional)
- 3 tablespoons cold-press Tahini (or Tahina)
- 4-5 tablespoons Greek yoghurt
- A drizzle of olive oil before serving
- Chopped parsley for garnish
- Make two horizontal incisions with the knife on each side of the eggplant (so it won't explode), and roast it on the stove top. You can place it on a skillet, or a piece of tin (the latter is the way my Grandma used to do it).
- Grill for 30 minutes. Keep changing the position of the eggplant so all sides are fire-kissed, and until the skin is slightly burnt on at least two sides. Remove the eggplants, place them on a plate and wait until they've cooled down a bit. Remove the inside of the eggplant and place it in a deep dish. Mash into smaller pieces until almost a paste.
- Now, add the Tahini paste and the yoghurt and mix well with a fork. Add the crushed garlic with a pinch of salt and mix.
- To serve, create a well in the middle of the deep serving bowl, and add a drizzle of olive oil and chopped parsley for garnish.
- If you want a Mezza-style meal, serve Mutabbal with french fries and Fattoush, and don't forget the pita bread so that you can add the Mutabbal to it like a spread.
Illustrated recipe + Food illustration by illustrator and artist Yaansoon