Recipe, styling and photography by Tanya Zouev.

I consider myself lucky to have grown up eating a great variety of multicultural food including Indian, Greek and Eastern European. My own mother’s cooking rarely ventured into Middle Eastern except for the occasional hummus and tabouleh (this was due to her having Jewish friends who happened to cook Israeli food). I was also able to enjoy a pita bread pocket stuffed with falafel at a cafe on St. Kilda’s Acland Street strip, but that was about it. I only barely scratched the surface of the Middle Eastern kitchen.

In 2000 I moved from Melbourne to the Sydney suburb of Surry Hills and discovered a long established restaurant in the midst of many Lebanese eating houses, Almustafa (which has been around since 1995 and still exists today). It was here that upon my first sampling of the most incredible slow-cooked lamb, crisp kibbeh and dips more delicious than any other I’d experienced, that my taste buds transported me to the places only spoken of in ancient fairy tales where sultans, oases and never-ending summers exist. Yes, the food was (and is) that good.

My husband who grew up in a very Aussie meat-and-two-veg family also didn’t eat much Middle Eastern food (with the exception of the odd sharwarma kebab from a late-night take-away food shop after a big night out drinking). He too was blown away by the flavours and Friday night became a ritual Lebanese food night for us. Being the creatures of habit that we were, we pretty much always ordered the same thing. It was always babaganoush, spiced lamb, and hummus.

Those memorable dinners were the inspiration for this recipe and contain some of my favourite flavours from the Middle East combined in a heavenly dish made for sharing. It takes a bit of time to prepare, but I will assure you that it’s worth every minute. It is really important however to chargrill the eggplants for the full hour (I learned this from my good friend Ozlem who is Turkish and an expert in cooking eggplants.) The eggplants need to be quite dry and withered in appearance so don’t be afraid to cook them for this long. Only then will you have the right flavour and consistency.

Serves six adults for a main course as a shared dish. Best served with a simple salad of cucumber and tomatoes, and a dollop of thick plain Greek yoghurt on the side.

Prep time approximately 15 minutes for each layer, cooking time approximately 1.5-2 hours in total.

Ingredients:

The babaganoush layer –
4 medium eggplants
3 cloves garlic
1/2 cup tahini
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley chopped finely
1 teaspoon cumin
salt to taste

The lamb layer –
1 kilo (approximately 2 pounds) lamb mince
1 onion, chopped finely
4-5 cloves garlic, crushed or chopped finely
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon dried mint
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 bay leaves
2 long red chillies, chopped finely
salt to taste

The hummus layer –
3/4 cup dried chickpeas soaked overnight (after soaking discard this water), which makes for approximately 3 cups of cooked chickpeas
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
3 cloves garlic
1/2 cup tahini
2 tablespoons olive oil
approximately 1/3 cup iced water
salt to taste

The garnish –
1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/4 cup flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup mint leaves to garnish
1 tablespoon ground sumac

Method:

The bottom layer, the babaganoush –

1. Preheat a BBQ grill. Prick your eggplants all over (to prevent explosions) and char-grill evenly all over for one hour. I rotate the eggplants around every ten minutes to ensure each side is cooked the same. The eggplants should be quite dry and withered in appearance.

2. Scoop out the eggplant flesh into a food processor with the garlic, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, cumin and salt and process until smooth. Set aside.

The middle layer, the lamb –

3. Place a heavy based fry pan over medium to high heat, add your oil and cook the onion and garlic until translucent and soft. Add the lamb mince and cook until browned, then drain off excess fat (you want the mince to be slightly dry for this dish). Add the spices, salt and chilli and cook for a further fifteen to twenty minutes on slightly lower heat until the meat caramelises and much of the juices have evaporated (don’t be concerned about the meat being dry as the moisture from the other two layers will compensate for this. I’ve been known to cook the meat for over half an hour on low heat to increase the flavours). Break any lumps up with a spoon. Set aside.

The top layer, the hummus –

4. Cook the soaked chickpeas in fresh water for approximately 30-40 minutes with the bicarbonate of soda until soft, drain and slightly cool.

5. Place the chickpeas into the bowl of a food processor along with the garlic, tahini, lemon juice, olive oil and salt and blend. Once blended, scrape down the sides of the bowl and slowly add the iced water with the motor running until you have reached a smooth and creamy consistency. If hummus is too thick add a little more iced water.

6. On a large flat serving platter first spread out the babaganoush layer, followed by the lamb and finally the hummus.

7. Sprinkle over the sumac, then scatter over the chopped parsley and mint leaves. Serve immediately.

 

Photography & styling notes:

Despite the colourful flavours in this dish, it’s rather brown in appearance and I knew I wanted to shoot it on a blue dish. The big flat serving plate is by Italian ceramic brand Virginia Casa (gasp! I actually bought something new!) who make some rather beautiful tableware. (If you’re in Sydney you can get a small range at Victoria’s Basement for a fraction of the retail price.) The rest of the props are all from my local op shops and are a mix of vintage and modern. I wanted a moody dark background and both the timber surface as well as the dark back wall are from hard rubbish council clean ups. The only lighting in this image is from daylight.