Chermoula Eggplant Salad

Let's talk about that question "Where are you from?"  

When I was abroad in Hong Kong, people asked me this a lot, which is fine.  I'm a white, American woman who grew up in the same place I now live.  Answering that question is fairly simple.

But when I was in high school I knew a lot of people who considered themselves "third-culture" kids - people whose families were from one place but who lived in another. For them, the question "Where are you from?" is a lot more complicated than it is for me.  

I also understand that many people of color find it difficult or even painful to answer this question.  This article from the Atlantic asked the reader to consider whether it is racist to ask where someone is from.  As we live in a world where people who experience racism are talking about it more openly, one of the common experiences that many non-white people describe is how demoralizing it is for someone to ask them "But where are you really from?"  The implication, generally, is that if you're not white then you must not really be American.  There's an implication of other-ness in that question that is painful and alienating.

 this is your chermoula, which will bake up into a crispy, crunchy topping.

this is your chermoula, which will bake up into a crispy, crunchy topping.

As I encountered people with all kinds of accents and skin tones and backgrounds in Hong Kong, I tried to figure out how to ask people about their backgrounds in a way that expressed interest in who they were as people.  For me, my desire to know where someone is from is about way more than just where they lived; it is about who they are and what their life experience has been. I want to propose that the better question is "What did you grow up eating?"

Here, I'll go first.

I grew up eating a lot of pasta because some of my paternal relatives were born in Italy.  We also ate a lot of health food before it was cool because my parents are hippies - they met and got married in Northern California.  For special occasions or when my mom was out of town, we would eat delicious tacos made by Mexican immigrants because I grew up in a town in the south with lots of immigrants, as did my father (except his hometown is in Southern California.)  I love food with lots of vinegar because I'm from the part of North Carolina that is into some vinegar-based barbecue.

See? Now you know more about me than my hometown.  We're so tight.

This recipe is adapted from a similar one on the New York Times website.  It's from Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbook Jerusalem.  Yotam Ottolenghi strikes me as someone who has probably been asked where he is from a lot.  The answer is that he was born in Jerusalem, but his cookbooks and restaurants reflect his eclectic life and the influence of his Middle Eastern roots.  We're all just cooking our way home.

Chermoula Eggplant Salad

Serves 4

  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tbsp chili flakes
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • 3 tbsp finely chopped preserved lemon peel (or the zest of one lemon)
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 medium eggplants
  • 1 cup uncooked couscous
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 1 ounce mint, chopped
  • 2 handfuls baby arugula
  • 3 green onions, sliced
  • 1/3 cup pecans, roughly chopped and toasted
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • feta cheese
  • salt and pepper

Preheat oven for 400 degrees.

Combine garlic and mix with cumin, chili, paprika, lemon peel, a pinch of salt and 1/2 cup olive oil.  If you have a mortar and pestle, use it to mash the garlic and combine these ingredients into a rough paste.  You can also do this in a small food processor, or just by chopping the lemon and garlic finely and then mixing together.  This is your chermoula.

Slice eggplants lengthwise down the middle and place on a baking sheet.  Spread chermoula on the cut side of the eggplant, then bake 30-40 minutes until eggplant is soft.

While the eggplant is cooking, cook the couscous according to the instructions on the package and set aside to let cool.  Soak the golden raisins in 1/2 cup warm water for 7-10 minutes, then drain and add to couscous.  Fold mint, arugula, onions and pecans into the couscous, then squeeze half a lemon over the mixture and add remaining olive oil.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

When the eggplant is cooked, let cool about 20 minutes.  I like to slice it into bite sized pieces because it makes it easier to get a whole big bite of deliciousness.  Add to couscous mixture and sprinkle with feta cheese.  

This dish can easily be made ahead, though I recommend waiting until you're ready to serve to add the mint.