Why It Works
- Pan-frying the eggplants to a deep orange-brown color and then braising them yields a silky texture and imparts subtle caramelized notes.
- Browning the chunks of lamb or beef deepens the flavor of the resulting braise.
- Adding the pan-fried eggplants to the pot for the second half of the braising period infuses them with the flavors of the braising liquid without them fully breaking down.
- The long and gentle cooking results in moist, melt-in-your-mouth chunks of meat.
Khoresh-é-bādemjan is one of the most popular Persian khoreshes, or meat braises, thanks at least in part to its centuries-deep roots in the Persian culinary landscape and ease of preparation. Both hearty and comforting, it’s also undeniably delicious. To make it, chunks of lamb or beef are browned and then gently braised in a simple aromatic flavor base of onions, ground turmeric, and tomatoes. Halfway through the process, pan-fried eggplants are added to the pot and the gentle cooking continues. The result is melt-in-your-mouth chunks of meat nestled alongside silky eggplant in a luscious braising sauce.
History of Khoresh-é-bādemjan
Khoresh-é-bādemjan has a long legacy in Persian cuisine. Several of the oldest surviving Arabic language cookbooks, which contain a slew of Persianized dishes, document the existence of meat braises with eggplant in the royal cuisine of ninth-century Iran. Those early versions differ a bit from contemporary khoresh-é-bādemjan recipes in that they were flavored with vinegar instead of tomato. That’s because tomatoes were not introduced into Iran until some time in the 19th century CE. (The literal translation of the Persian word for tomato, gojeh-farangi, is “foreign plum.”) Since then, tomatoes have found their way into a large number of Persian dishes.
Eggplants are integral in a wide range of Persian foods: They’re added to soup, porridge, rice, and egg dishes; braised; stuffed; pickled; and even made into jam. For stuffing, Persian home cooks prefer the fatter, globe-shaped eggplants, but slender eggplants are better for braising and pan-frying, since they have fewer seeds and can be simply halved lengthwise before cooking. They are also more likely to keep their shape during braising. Although recipes sometimes recommend salting eggplants to remove bitterness and prevent them from soaking up oil, neither precaution is necessary. Today’s eggplants have been bred not to be bitter. And the richness that comes from eggplants soaking oil while they cook is a key characteristic of this and other Persian khoreshes. Any truly extra oil will drip naturally away as the pan-fried eggplants rest on a wire rack placed over a baking sheet.
As for the meat, khoresh-é-bādemjan is typically made with either lamb or beef. If you have the option, go with lamb, as that is the preferred meat among most Persians (the earliest known domestication of sheep took place in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran about 10,000 years ago, while cattle raising did not flourish there until the Middle Ages). The best cuts of lamb for Persian-style braising are leg, shoulder, neck, and shank. These cuts contain intramuscular fat and connective tissue that break down during the long, slow, moist cooking process, giving the meat a moist and tender texture. I especially like leg of lamb because it is quite adaptable and it’s the most readily available cut in American supermarkets. I typically purchase a 4- to 5-pound (2- to 2.4kg) deboned leg of lamb, trim the unwanted fat, and divide it into one-pound portions that I cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces for braising; if I’m not going to be using all the meat within a day or two, I freeze it. Not only is this more economical, but it also gives me more control over the quality and size of the pieces of meat. If you decide to go with beef, the best cuts of beef for braising include chuck, bone-in short rib, shanks, and oxtail (though oxtail has a lot of bones to deal with).
Tell-Tale Signs of a Perfect Braise
Khoresh-é-bādemjan embodies an important concept in Persian cookery called “ja-oftādan” (Persian: جا افتادن). It describes the ultimate and most desired stage of a braise when all the ingredients are thoroughly integrated and “married,” suspended in thick, liquid. At that point, the meat will have reached the “falling off the bone” stage of tenderness (even if it doesn’t contain bones), and any fat will have picked up the color of one of the key ingredients in the dish, appearing as shiny pools on the surface of the braise.
You can tell that khoresh-é-bādemjan has reached this state when it has achieved a brownish-orange color, the chunks of meat are poking out between the surrounding silky strips of eggplant, and deep-orange pools of oil, released naturally from the pan-fried eggplants, are circling the pot.
Variations of Khoresh-é-Bādemjan
Traditionally speaking, many Persian dishes take advantage of short-lived seasonal ingredients. A popular late springtime variation of khoresh-é-bādemjan involves the use of unripe green sour grapes. In Farsi, sour grapes are called ghooreh and are a popular souring agent; they are used either fresh whole, juiced into verjuice, or dried and ground. They are harvested in late spring when they are no larger than the size of a jellybean. To make this popular late springtime variation of khoresh-é-bādemjan simply add 3/4 cup of sour grapes about 30 minutes before the end of the braising time. (Fresh sour unripe green grapes freeze quite well: When I get my hands on them in the spring, I first separate the individual grapes from the stems, then freeze most of them for future use.)
Although lamb and beef are the most popular meats for making khoresh-é-bādemjan, it is sometimes made with bone-in or boneless chicken parts.
How to Serve Khoresh-é-Bādemjan
Like practically all other Persian khoreshes, khoresh-é-bādemjan is best served as a main dish accompanied by a plain rice dish such as the chelow (Persian steamed white rice), along with a few pieces of crunchy tahdig. It is normally transferred to a large dish and served family-style; some Persian home cooks garnish their khoresh-é-bādemjan with a couple of lightly seared tomato halves as well.
Khoresh-é-Bādemjan (Persian Meat and Eggplant Stew)
Filled with melt-in-your-mouth meat and luscious eggplant, this aromatic stew is hearty, comforting, and undeniably delicious.
2 tablespoons (60ml) olive or vegetable oil, divided, plus oil for frying the eggplant and optional tomato pieces
2 pounds (900g) long, slender eggplant, trimmed, peeled, and halved lengthwise (see notes)
1 pound (450g) boneless leg of lamb, shoulder, neck or shank, or stewing beef, cut in 1- to 1 1/2-inch chunks
1 teaspoon kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 small yellow onion (about 4 ounces; 114g), cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
3 tablespoons (45g) tomato paste
1 tablespoon (15ml) fresh lemon juice, plus extra to taste
1 medium tomato, cored and into 3 round slices (optional)
Set a wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet and line with a triple layer of paper towels. Fill a 12-inch cast-iron skillet 1/4 inch deep with oil, then heat over medium-high heat until oil is shimmering but not smoking. Working in batches to prevent crowding the skillet, carefully add eggplant slices, cut side down, and fry, lowering the heat as needed to prevent the oil from smoking and flipping once halfway through, until eggplant is dark golden brown on both sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer eggplant to prepared wire rack. Repeat with remaining eggplant, topping up with additional oil if needed. Set cooked eggplant aside.
In a Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Season meat evenly with the salt and pepper and add to the saucepan in a single layer. Cook, turning occasionally, until meat is well browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer meat to a plate and set aside.
Heat remaining fat in the Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering, and add chopped onion. Cook until the onion is softened and golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes.
Stir in turmeric and cook until aromatic, 30 seconds. Stir in tomato paste and cook until well incorporated and beings to darken in color, 1 minute longer.
Add 2 cups water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Scrape the bottom of the saucepan to free up any brown bits stuck to the bottom. Stir in the meat and return to a boil, then cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook for 10 minutes.
Remove the lid and give the contents a gentle stir. Adjust the heat as needed to maintain a gentle simmer. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Stir in lemon juice.
Gently arrange the eggplant halves on top of the meat in an even layer, overlapping if needed. Using a spatula, gently press down on the eggplant and carefully shake the pot in a swirling motion to submerge the eggplant into the braising liquid (you don’t want to break the eggplant pieces by stirring them in). Cover and continue cooking at a gentle simmer for 30 minutes longer, swirling the pot every 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small skillet, heat 1 1/2 teaspoons oil over medium heat until shimmering, then cook the tomato slices until limp, about 5 minutes.
Season with additional salt or lemon juice, if desired (Persian dishes are often more sour than salty, though feel free to follow your personal preferences). Gently transfer the finished braise to a serving dish. (Rather than spooning it in, which can break up the eggplant too much, I usually tip the pot carefully over the edge of the serving dish so that the contents can slowly slide into it.) Garnish with tomato slices and serve.
I prefer to use slender, purple-hued eggplant. Thin eggplants labeled as Japanese eggplant or Chinese eggplant will both work well in this recipe. You may substitute fatter round eggplants such as globe eggplant; if using this type, slice them into 1-inch-thick (2cm) disks for frying.
If you own an electric griddle, you can use it to fry the eggplant slices. With its large surface area, the griddle allows you to fry in fewer batches than a cast-iron pan, and I have found that it uses less oil and gives results that are just as good.
All braising times given above are sufficient to result in a well “ja-oftādeh” (integrated) authentic khoresh-é-bādemjan. However, with this dish, you won’t go wrong if you let it simmer, covered, over very low heat, for another 30 minutes or more; it will simply get more flavorful.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Like many other Persian khoreshes, khoresh-é-bādemjan can be made a day or two ahead of time and reheated gently.
Pan-fried eggplants freeze quite well as long as they are stored in an airtight container. Whenever I see good-quality skinny eggplants at a reasonable price, I buy several pounds, pan-fry them, and store them in 1-pound portions in freezer bags for making this or other eggplant-based dishes later.
Khoresh-é-bādemjan is extremely leftover-friendly. Store any leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for up to three months.