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Taste of Europe: Alex Navarro’s aubergine dopiaza

This is a brilliantly devised and executed vegan dish where aubergine is the star, says JOSH BARRIE

Alex Navarro's aubergine dopiaza

The food scene in Manchester, and in the north-west generally, is rocking. I find myself visiting more frequently these days because so much is going on. Last month, at the Top 50 Gastropubs awards at Escape to Freight Island – a new eating and drinking space in an old warehouse near Piccadilly Station – restaurateurs, chefs and publicans were on hand to talk about their projects and plans. They came from across the UK, but it was a testament to the region that the ceremony was being held there rather than in London.

Coming soon is the Northern Restaurant & Bar show, March 15-16. It aims to propel northern hospitality, and will this year feature Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume, the first Michelin three-star restaurant in the UK outside of London or Bray, Berkshire.

What I love about Manchester and its surrounds is that it’s large enough to support an ever-evolving restaurant scene, with bobbing independents
rolling nicely alongside big names like Hawksmoor and Dishoom, but small
enough not to feel stretched. If you’re not au fait with the city, look up the likes of Erst, District, and Kala.

Soon to arrive (summer 2022) is Maray, a Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant founded in Liverpool.

Maray was early to the cauliflower revolution, which has seen the [insert the word “humble”] veg elevated for the purposes of commodified vegetarianism.

There’s also a brilliantly devised and executed vegan dish – yes! – from head chef Alex Navarro, where aubergine is the star. It’s an aubergine dopiaza rich
with spices and tomato, and topped with crispy onions. Navarro tells me “dopiaza” translates from Persian as “double onions”. That’s good news. Here it is.

AUBERGINE DOPIAZA

SERVES 4-6

INGREDIENTS
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns
½ teaspoon mixed mustard seeds
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon whole green cardamom
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon bay leaves
1 whole star anise
½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 heaped tablespoon ground cumin
1 heaped tablespoon ground coriander
3 heaped tablespoons curry powder (any shop-bought powder is fine)
4 medium onions, sliced (Yes, 4!)
300g passata or 100g tomato puree
1 litre of water
5 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
Salt to taste
3 aubergines, diced into roughly 2cm cubes
Lemon
300ml cold-pressed rapeseed oil
Fresh coriander (to garnish)

METHOD
First, get all your ingredients prepared in advance; weighed out, sliced, chopped and measured.

In a small ramekin or dish, combine your whole spices and set aside, then
mix your ground spices in a bowl with enough water to create a thick paste.

Take your diced aubergine, lightly season with salt and pepper, place in a
single layer on a baking tray and bake in a hot oven (220/Gas mark 7), until
just cooked. This should take roughly 20 minutes, you want colour and should be able to pierce with a fork.

Place a good-sized saucepan on a medium heat and add 200ml of your rapeseed oil and add your whole spices. Bring this gently up to heat until you hear the spices popping. This process is called Tarka: we are flavouring the oil with our spices, and when you hear them popping indicates that the oil is infused nicely.

Now add your onions and give it a good stir, keeping the heat the same. Be gentle but firm at this point as it is hot, you want your onions to be evenly
coated in the oil mixture. Now put on the lid and leave to slowly caramelise
until they turn a lovely deep golden brown. Keep an eye on them, stirring
when need be. They will catch on the bottom, don’t worry, this creates the
lovely caramelised flavour. When the onions are ready, take off the lid and
add your spice paste, give it a good stir and cook out for about a minute. Now
add your tomato and water.

Move to a smaller hob at this point and let it slowly simmer for approximately 30 minutes, with the lid off. Take care at this point that it doesn’t stick to the bottom, as the spices will burn. Season with salt, and adjust your water as it might take a touch more throughout. Once it looks a deep red/brown colour, take off the heat, add your aubergines. Now in a separate pan, heat the remaining oil, add the garlic and fry until golden, then add to your curry. Always check your seasoning throughout all the stages of cooking.

A squeeze of lemon really helps to freshen everything up.

In the ingredients list, I have included a shop-bought curry powder as it’s as good and a lot easier. We roast and grind our own in the restaurant; if you have a spice grinder at home (coffee ones are actually better) then have a go at creating your own unique blend. And now the great debate: coriander! Personally, I believe this recipe is not the same without it, but since the herb
is very divisive, I’ll leave it up to you.

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