I sometimes feel Lebanese and Syrian Mutabbal, also referred to as “Aubergine Dip” or “Eggplant Dip,” is somewhat misunderstood by foodies less familiar with the Levantine and Middle Eastern culture. Understanding the rituals and customs surrounding foods and dishes, from cultures that are foreign to us, is crucial to the overall culinary experience. Food is identity, therefore I believe we need to show respect and cultural sensitivity when we cook other people’s food so as not to commit “culinary cultural appropriation.”
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 stand-alone 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,” “Maza,” or “Mezze” (an elaborate starter course of small hot and cold plates served as an appetizer or prelude to meat or seafood main courses).
The other way Levantine countries – like Syria and Lebanon – serve Mutabbal is as a side dish with meat-based platters, like cubed lamb skewers, or fried “Kibbeh” (balls of ground lamb or beef combined with bulgur, and stuffed with fried meat with onions, pine nuts and spices).
Although Mutabbal (in Arabic) is commonly referred to as Aubergine Dip or 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 none 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 Levantine and Middle Eastern foodie, is like serving béchamel sauce without the pasta or the other ingredients it’s supposed to be paired with.
Just like we need to understand what “Anti-pasti,” “Primo,” and “Secondo” are to Italian gastronomes (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.
Check out this Batata Harra recipe for an authentic take on Lebanese potato cubes sautéed with coriander and garlic. Batata Harra can be served alongside Mutabbal and other small plates as part of an elaborate Lebanese appetizer course, aka “Meze.” Alternatively, it can be served as a side dish with certain seafood dishes and grilled meat main courses.
The Levantine Culinary Contexts of Mutabbal: Two Ways to Serve This Scrumptious Eggplant Dip
Mutabbal is a staple dish in the Lebanese cuisine, usually served as part of “Mezza,” which is an elaborate assortment of appetizers that can be laid out on the table as a stand-alone feast.
However, traditionally, Mezza was typically introduced as a prelude to a meatier Lebanese barbecue meal of delicious dishes like lamb chops, cubed meat skewers and mix grill. This being 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 spread originating in Aleppo, Syria), and other scrumptious starters.
In Syria, Mutabbal is more commonly served as a side dish. A home-cook of Syrian origin recently told me that she believed Mutabbal originated in Damascus, Syria. In the olden days, Damascus was less polluted and engulfed by a ring of vegetation just 10 km away from it, called Ghouta. Before urbanisation ruined this once-green countryside of Damascus, it was a lush heaven of orchard trees and fields with vegetables and crops of every kind. Aubergines or eggplants were planted heavily in Ghouta along the Barada River and supplied Damascus with enough aubergines to make it a staple Damascene dish.
As such, Mutabbal can also be singled out of the Mezza feast and served as a side dish next to certain foods that go well with it, like baked “Kibbeh” (a tray of two layers of mashed meat and bulgur, with a middle layer of fried minced meat cooked with onions and spices). In this case, the smokiness and tanginess of Mutabbal are a suitable accompaniment to “Kibbeh,” and a flavoursome enhancer of this authentic Syrian-Lebanese dish.
Like many other dishes in the Levant, Mutabbal has made its way to other neighbouring cuisines, including the Jordanian and Palestinian 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 cuisines and often offers its own trademark twist to known Levantine dishes.
Culturally-speaking, Syria and Lebanon share a lot of similarities between the them in food, handcrafts and even traditions and customs. In fact, one of the fabrics heavily used in Lebanon to make traditional-looking cushions, purses, and crafts – called “Sayeh” – originates in Aleppo in northern Syria. Historically, the city of Aleppo has played an important role in enhancing Levantine culture with its rich handcraft and culinary heritage, leaving a major mark over countries like Lebanon and Turkey.
Mutabbal: The Recipe
In our household, we make Mutabbal with grilled aubergine/eggplant, garlic cloves, Tahini, yoghurt, olive oil, and parsley for garnish. I’ve seen other recipes that suggest adding a dab of lemon juice, an interesting addition that you may want to try. There are other Levantine versions of Mutabbal that make do with the garlic. Some households in Damascus don’t add garlic at all, and the same goes to almost every Lebanese restaurant I’ve been to. But the version of Mutabbal I know and love, inherited from my grandmother, has garlic in it and tastes absolutely divine!
Lebanese Mutabbal: Eggplant Dip
- 1 medium-sized aubergine/eggplant roast 2 aubergines or eggplants if you are inviting people over
- 2 cloves garlic crushed (optional)
- 3 tbsp cold-pressed Tahini (or Tahina)
- 4-5 tbsp 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/aubergine (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 or aubergine 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 warm or toasted pita bread to spread the Mutabbal.
Middle Eastern food illustration, Lebanese food illustration, Illustrated recipe | These illustrations are part of the Illustrated Middle Eastern Recipes blog series on “The Illustration Blog of a Nomadic Mediterranean Foodie” by multi-cultural illustrator and artist Yaansoon