There are a few tales of how this recipe of braised meat and aubergine sauce came about but my favourite is that of Sultan Murad IV who is returning from a hunting trip and stops at a peasants house and is then served this dish. He delights in it and demands that it is added to the palace’s kitchens. The concept of a Sultan eating outside of the palace – without his personal food taster who checks for poisoning, his special colour changing plate and the idea of someone other than the hundreds of kitchen staff and aşcıbaşı’s – chefs who specialize in a particular course. It seems rather far-fetched but then aren’t the Ottomans just that!
More often quoted is the story of the visit of Empress Eugénie de Montijo during the reign of Sultan Abdulaziz. It is said that Abdulaziz and Eugenie met when he was visiting Paris and instantly fell in love. A few years later (1868) the Empress was a guest in the Dolmabahçe palace and they are reported to have spent a night together – Eugenie who was married to Napoleon III caused uproar in the Harem and is rumored to have been slapped by the Valide Sultan, ‘the Sultans mother’.
During the visit both Empress Eugenie’s chef and one of the Sultans aşcıbaşı’s were said to be discussing dinner for their respective heads. The French counterpart was making a dish with béchamel sauce and the Ottoman a meat stew. Somehow they met in the middle and the aubergine was mixed into the sauce and the braised meat placed up on it. One would imagine that there was trepidation as the personal chef’s both waited to hear what the state heads thought about their creation.
And so Hünkar beğendi (The imperial court liked it) – was said to have been born.
The modern version of the dish has the addition of both tomatoes in the meat stew and cheese in the aubergine sauce but I wanted to go back to the routes of the dish and see what it may have been like when either Sultan may have tasted it for the first time. So I looked it up in the cookbook ‘Mükemmel Yemek Kitabı’ (The perfect food cookbook) A cookbook from 1926.
The book gave a recipe for the sauce and a recipe for ‘tray kebab’:
Use cubes of full fat lamb or beef, season it and mix by hand and then place in a tray with a whole onion in the centre - cover and cook on a middle flame open fire for 3 hours. It was very clear that the meat should be not mixed at any time. – I made it at home so used a dutch oven and placed it in my oven at 150 using the bottom heat setting.
The aubergine recipe described blackening the aubergine over the fire and after cooling cutting open to mash flesh with a wooden spoon. This is to be added to a roux with milk or meat stock and cooked for 15 minutes with constant stiring.
I used only peppers, paprika, black pepper and salt for the seasoning (Tomatoes reportedly were not introduced into the Ottoman lands until the late 1800’s). The meat really was a delight, tender and so full of taste. The sauce was actually a breeze to make although there was no reference to seasoning I have to admit I added a little nutmeg to the sauce just because it brings béchamel alive but the biggest surprise was the sweet onion that I served on the side. It really is no wonder that the Sultan and his ‘guest’ were so delighted.
The meat part of the recipe can be done as chicken or mince meat and of course both cheese and tomatoes can be used if you wish.