The secret to getting a great flavour and texture in this simple mixture of cooked puréed aubergine, sesame paste and strained yoghurt relies on allowing moisture to evaporate and condense the aubergine’s flesh. But when you get it right you get an outrageously complex dish that defies easy explanation. Friends taste it and ask me, ‘how do you get that subtle charred flavour?’ and muse over achieving the delicate texture. And to be honest, the tweaks you can make to this dish while still keeping it pure are many. The way you add the garlic, the type of yoghurt used, the way you spice it or not; these all contribute to the unique signature each cook brings to their baba ghanuj.

To get the best flavour you want to grill the aubergines over an open flame until the flesh is soft, something that isn’t really possible in most homes unless you use a grill or a barbecue. So I char the skins over the flame of a gas hob then bake them with the garlic in the oven until tender; it’s not quite as strong a flavour but very good. A friend of mine likes to char and bake an onion at the same time, and chops the soft onion through the mixture.

Serves 4

For the meatballs

  • 500g minced beef or lamb
  • 1 small onion, finely grated
  • 20g pine nuts, roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp Lebanese 7-spice mix
  • ½ tsp ground allspice
  • 2-3 tbsp olive oils
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 onions, roughly chopped
  • ½ aubergine, roughly chopped
  • 1 courgette, roughly chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 1 green pepper, deseeded and roughly chopped
  • 1 red pepper, deseeded and roughly chopped
  • 200g chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 750ml hot beef or lamb stock, plus a little extra

First make the sauce. Heat the oil in a large pan and sauté the onion for around 10 minutes until starting to soften and caramelise. Add the aubergine and continue to cook until golden.

Stir in the garlic and cook for about a minute, just until you can smell its aroma. Stir in the chopped peppers, tomatoes, tomato purée and season everything well then pour in the stock. Cover and bring to the boil, then set aside to simmer over a very low heat while you make the meatballs.

Put the minced meat in a large bowl and add the onion, pine nuts, spices and plenty of seasoning. Mix with your hands until all the ingredients are combined. Take lumps of the mixture, around the size of an apricot, and roll into balls and then set aside on a separate plate.

Give the sauce, which has been gently simmering away, a good stir. You may need to add a little more stock or water at this stage if it’s looking thick. Drop the meatballs on top, tucking them just under the liquid and simmer for 25–30 minutes or until the meatballs are tender, adding more stock if necessary.

Serve with vermicelli rice for best results.