Burn that aubergine: an immigrant’s dream
The 20th of July was the hottest day in 2014. Not in Europe, in Romania, or even in Bucharest, my hometown, but in a three-by-four meter pocket, on the 9th floor of a communist-style building: my parents’ kitchen. A heat you could almost touch spread through the flat beneath our hallway door, the whole house layered in a smokiness that left no break for breathing. I was banished from the kitchen, reigned only by my mother, to protect me from a smell that would supposedly contaminate my tissues forever.
Aubergine salad. I do not know yet of another dish whose preparation says nothing good about the thing to come. I would watch my mom’s hands wrinkle under the cold water as she washed the purple fruits. She would pat them dry, fire up all four gas rings, then start the torture. Under the open fire, their bruised skin would slowly inflate, tiny blisters of air that would darken, build crusts, then explode, drawing trenches up and down the aubergine’s body. The kitchen door would have closed on me by that time. I would still choke on the almost metallic smoke, even the depth of my wardrobe would carry a burnt je ne sais quoi, but I had already decided that a house flavored with culinary vapors was better than any air-sanitised home.
Burnt flakes would float above our stove, as the greenish flesh would soften. The fire would force the seeds to release their water and the aubergine would cringe, curve, shrinking and shrinking. A vegetarian crematorium. 40 kilograms worth of victims. My mother knew always when to stop it, she knew when the fruits had completely left their guard down, scarred and mushy underneath.
Mom has the most amazing hands. She’s tiny, but her fingers are the most feminine, proportional, soft-skinned I have seen. And then she would fight the heat, by peeling every stubborn crunchiness off those aubergines. A more unsupervised waiting followed, while the kitchen would shed its clouds and the fruits would tear up their bitter juices in the sieve.
Fire is essential, and so is the peeling and the draining. Whatever you do afterwards will serve no good if you haven’t stuck your fingers in the fire.
When I left home, I didn’t know the real deal will be so hard to find. Sure, I bought purple aubergines, white aubergines, big ones, little ones, subjected them to all sorts of heat sources. Because you know, induction is this thing of modernity in Western Europe. It’s sleek and you don’t pay gas. But it won’t give you aubergine salad. There’s shops selling jars of charred aubergines, tainted with ascorbic acid and powdered garlic. Not OK. They took a wrong path from conception and there’s no trick to fix that. There’s always baba ganoush from the best Middle Eastern restaurants in London. And it’s fine. Some even throw their eggplants on charcoal. But it’s not that that soothes the soul.
Again and again, I have gazed through my oven window, hoping the baking will awake the dark, long-sought smokiness in those spongy dudes. I would mush them with a non-metal spoon, fine up some onion and salt away. This constant search only resulted in me missing my hellish kitchen. My mom’s hair smelling like salad for days, despite the tsunamis of French shampoos attempting to delete it.
So you spread it on bread, or dump it on a tomato slice. Salty, creamy aubergine treated right. It might be better that it’s just so endemic, sparking the unconscious craving that takes me back to that tiny kitchen.