This is my take on Hünkar, which is traditionally prepared with sheep’s milk butter; but I find that this olive oil variation can be equally sumptuous. Cheese plays a very important role in my version and can alter the taste dramatically: Gruyere and cheddar make a richly sweet dish, but smoked cheddar or provolone combined with Feta adds a spicier note.
An Ottoman Sultan, a French Princess…and Hünkar Beğendi – all the necessary ingredients for romance, intrigue, and culinary invention. According to legend this rich and creamy eggplant puree was created in the 18th century by one of the Sultan’s cooks. The occasion was a dinner given in honor of a French Princess visiting the palace of the Ottoman ruler in Istanbul. The French were known for their love of vegetable purees, so the cook paid homage to the Princess by presenting an Oriental version, using the Empire’s most admired vegetable. The dish was a great success. We know less about the Sultan’s pursuit of the Princess…
In Turkey and in Greece hünkar traditionally accompanies a tomato lamb or beef stew. I love it on its own, or topped with my Basic Tomato Sauce. You can also serve it with braised kale or other hearty greens. Hünkar makes a great appetizer: serve it with toasted pita triangles to scoop-up the creamy puree or spread it on toasted, garlic-rubbed multi-grain bread.
Adapted from my Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts
Serves 4 as a main dish, or 8-10 as an appetizer
4 large eggplants (about 2 1/2 pounds, 1250 grams)
2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons flour
2/3 cup full-fat milk or more, as needed
2 cups grated Gruyere or Cheddar, OR a combination of 1 cup crumbled Feta and 1 cup grated smoky provolone or cheddar
Freshly ground pepper, preferably white, to taste
Salt to taste
Pierce each eggplant in several places around the stem with a skewer, toothpick, or fork. Place on the rack, about 1 inch from the coals on a gas or charcoal grill, or under a very hot broiler. Turn the eggplant methodically, exposing all sides to the heat. The skin will char evenly and the flesh will soften in about 10 minutes (see note page 000, Syrian Eggplant Spread). The slower and longer you roast, the smokier the taste. If using an electric stove, roast the eggplants, over moderate to low heat, on a ridged stovetop grill (which allows liquid to drain), turning as above, for 20-30 minutes.
Transfer the eggplants to a colander. With a sharp knife halve lengthwise and let them drain for 10 minutes. Scoop out the flesh, discarding the skin and hard seeds. Mash the flesh with a fork and transfer to a medium bowl. Toss with the lemon to keep the flesh white.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan or skillet warm the olive oil with the flour, stirring constantly until it starts to foam. Remove from the heat and add the eggplant puree and milk, stirring constantly. Return to the stove and cook over medium-low heat, stirring, until the mixture becomes thick and creamy. If it is too thick add some more milk.
Remove from the heat, fold in the cheese and add several grindings of pepper. Taste and only then add salt, as the cheeses may be salty enough.
Serve immediately. You can cool and refrigerate the hünkar, but reheat it very slowly before serving.