Mtabbal is a simple but subtle dish which should be consumed at room temperature or slightly colder. It should be prepared a few hours ahead of time so that the various tastes have time to settle down and mingle but not become too familiar with each other. Which means that your aim is for a mtabbal that is light as a feather, in taste and in looks. Among the ingredients, the culprit, the one to watch out for, is the tahini, which should be made into a sauce first and then mixed with the roasted eggplant. Never ever mix the tahini into the eggplant without thinning it first.
The taste you’re trying to achieve is one of subtle roastiness, the one which is often overlooked or which passes unnoticed. You can have perfect tahini sauce, organically grown garlic and lemon, but what is most important is that your eggplant should have that aftertaste of the roasted.
Roasting the eggplant. If you have en electric stove-top, forget the idea of roasting it on the stove top. If you have a gas stove-top, roast the eggplant (after making small slits into it) until it feels completely cooked and the juices begin to ooze out of the skin. This takes some time and you need to be vigilant and turn the vegetable around many, many times.
You can also grill the vegetable. But this can be tricky because you want the fire to synge the skin of the eggplant. This is what gives the dish its roasted quality. How do you do that? I really don’t know, but some of my friends insist that it can be done.
If all else fails, forget about the roasted taste and just bake the poor thing in the oven or broil it. Of course, it will not be the same as roasted, but it will be good enough!
The sauce: Mix the tahini with some water and lemon juice until you get a not-too-soopy-and-not-too-thick consistency. The mixture should be the consistency of “European,” creamy yogurt. (By the way, you can buy excellent and so-called European yogurt at Trader Joe’s, which can compete with the Middle Eastern variety of which there are several outstanding brands. My favorite is still Abali, with Karoun coming in a close second.) In fact, some people (such as myself) add a tablespoon of yogurt to the mixture of eggplant and tahini.
The temptation is to let the tahini overpower everything else, which is the way of the commercialization of many things that we eat. Let one thing dominate; in most cases it’s sugar or salt. But mtabbal turns nasty and tasteless when the tahini dominates it–in taste and in looks.
Pour the tahini mixture on top of the eggplant (which has been scooped out of its skin, cleared of seeds and cut into small pieces BUT not food processed). Do not over-mix; it kills the spirit of the dish. Your final product should have a whitish color, be somewhat fluffy and very light on the taste buds. The garlic should not dominate it either.
Let the whole thing rest for an hour or so. Garnish the mixture with pomegranate seeds, cut up parsley, and olive oil. Some people used cumin with mtabbal. I am a great fan of cumin but not in this dish.
Best with fish, or with mjadarrah (lentils and rice pilaf), and a green salad.