How to make the perfect borani – recipe

<span>Photograph: Robert Billington/The Guardian. Food styling: Loïc Parisot.</span>
Photograph: Robert Billington/The Guardian. Food styling: Loïc Parisot.

Borani, in the Iranian sense at least, is a rich, creamy, cooked vegetable salad that’s said to be named after a 7th-century Persian queen, AKA Pourandokht, who was, it is claimed, extremely fond of the yoghurt that is the dish’s defining ingredient. A millennium and a half later, her tastes live on in the form of this recipe, which is also popular in Turkey.

To British eyes, borani looks most like what we’d call a dip, and indeed it does pair well with flatbreads as a starter or light lunch, but it’s also eaten as an accompaniment to grilled meats, rice dishes or other main courses. As Nader Mehravari explains, “a Persian sofreh – the physical table setting, and the people gathered around it for a meal – is unthinkable without a bowl of some kind of yoghurt-based accompaniment”. Just ask Queen Pourandokht.

The aubergine

Having bought 13 aubergines from my slightly perplexed local greengrocer, it’s time to work out the best way to cook them. Sadly, the simplest – pricking the skins and sticking them in a hottish oven for 15 minutes (as per Sally Butcher’s Snackistan), or for an hour (as in Najmieh Batmanglij’s From Persia to Napa) – is also the least satisfactory: even after 25 minutes, they’re too firm to peel, and though giving them longer does render the aubergines soft enough to shred, they’re definitely more wrinkled rather than charred.

Anissa Helou puts her aubergines under a hot grill for 30-40 minutes, which is more satisfactory, but the best result comes from the faffiest method, in the form of Atoosa Sepehr’s smoked aubergines. In her book From a Persian Kitchen, Sepehr says the most authentic way to achieve the desired flavour is to “barbecue them whole, in their skins, over an open fire”, though a gas flame is apparently also acceptable. Sadly for me, however, my testers are unanimous in their appreciation for the smoky notes that you only get by messing up your hob for a good cause.

Second place goes to Margaret Shaida’s version in her classic book The Legendary Cuisine of Persia, which salts the aubergine, then fries and finely chops it. The salt (and the garlic in the oil) gives it an incredible flavour, while the oil makes it gloriously rich and silky.

If you have no means of charring the aubergines over a flame, and don’t fancy frying them, blackening them under a very hot grill is the way to go. Once charred, the flesh should come out of the skins in long, soft strips, which means there’s no need to peel or puree it. (Interestingly, Batmanglij removes the seeds, which I’ve never done before. Who knew aubergines had so many.)

Helou instructs readers of Feast, her book of recipes from the Islamic world, to drain the liquid from the cooked aubergine, which is a good idea, because borani should be a thick, rather than watery affair, but I prefer to fry off any excess liquid in a hot pan, so the aubergine doesn’t sacrifice any of its delicate flavour.

The seasoning

Helou and Butcher start the dish with fried onion and garlic, and Sepehr fried garlic alone, while Shaida cooks the aubergine in garlic-infused oil, then scatters the garlic itself on top. Batmanglij, meanwhile, simply sticks in four raw cloves, which causes some spluttering among my testers. I’m not averse to its pungency once tempered by the yoghurt, but I also enjoy the mellowness of the fried sort, especially when it’s paired with the sweetness of Helou’s silky wedges of onion.

Butcher seasons her borani with garam masala, which works well with the aubergine, but tastes, to me, more south Asian than Persian. Batmanglij uses cumin and cayenne, which gives the dish a surprising kick, and Sepehr turmeric (which lends it such a verdant glow that it leads one tester to assume it contains avocado) and dried mint, whose unmistakable fresh menthol sweetness is the perfect counterbalance to the earthy alliums and bitter aubergine and walnuts.

The dairy

Unsurprisingly, given that it’s one of the defining characteristics of borani, all the recipes I try contain strained yoghurt, though Batmanglij advises that you can replace it with tahini and chopped walnuts, which is a great idea if you don’t eat dairy. In fact, the nuts prove so popular that I’m going to include them in my version, too – their crunchy texture is very satisfying when paired with the soft aubergine and creamy yoghurt.

Helou uses labneh – that is, yoghurt further strained into a soft, crumbly, almost cheese-like substance – which makes her version almost as rich as Shaida’s fried one. As long as you choose a full-fat strained yoghurt (which in the UK will probably be labelled as simply Greek, or Greek-style, irrespective of where it’s actually from), and pour off any liquid from the pot before use, I don’t think this is strictly necessary.

The garnish

If you want something that looks good on Instagram, you’d be better off making a spinach or beetroot borani, because the combination of aubergine and yoghurt does create an undeniably porridge-like substance (and perhaps explains Sepehr’s use of vivid yellow turmeric). That can be somewhat remedied with the saffron-infused water Helou and Batmanglij that drizzle on top of theirs, or with the latter’s fresh mint, but unfortunately the most popular garnish is the fried onion used by Butcher and Sepehr, which is, again, brown. Lean into it; after all, no one complains about hummus.

The whole dish can be prepared a couple of days in advance, but it will need a good stir to bring it back together before serving. Add the onion only just before serving, though.

Perfect aubergine borani

Prep 20 min
Cook 40 min
Serves 4-6

4 medium aubergines
1 yellow onion
6 garlic cloves
50g walnuts
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp dried mint
Vegetable or other neutral oil
, for frying
200g thick, full-fat strained yoghurt

Start by charring the aubergines, either on a barbecue or directly on the flame of a gas hob, turning them with tongs until very soft and black all over.

(Alternatively, and less satisfactorily, prick and put them under a hot grill, again turning until well blackened.) Set aside to cool a little.

Meanwhile, peel the onion and cut half of it into slim wedges. Peel and crush the garlic. Put a dry frying pan on a medium-high heat and, once hot, toast the walnuts until fragrant. Tip out and set aside.

Pour the olive oil into the hot pan, turn down the heat a little and fry the onion wedges, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden all over.

While the onion is cooking, spoon the flesh out of the aubergines, then roughly mash it.

Add the garlic to the onion pan and cook, stirring continuously so it doesn’t burn, until it turns a pale golden colour, at which point stir in the mint and the aubergine flesh.

Turn the heat back up and fry, stirring occasionally, for about five minutes, until any liquid has evaporated, then take off the heat and leave to cool.

Finely slice the remaining onion and sprinkle it with salt. Pour enough neutral oil into a deep, wide panto fill it by a third and put it on a high heat.

Once the oil is hot enough that a slice of onion sizzles immediately on contact, fry the onion, in batches if need be so as not to overcrowd the pan, until golden brown and crisp. Lift out with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Roughly chop the toasted walnuts. Once the aubergine mixture is cool, drain any liquid from the yoghurt, then stir it and the walnuts into the aubergine mix. Season to taste, spoon into a serving dish and top with fried onions just before serving.

  • Borani: what’s your favourite version of this Iranian classic, and what do you pair it with? And have we got any fans of the quite different Afghan dish of the same name who’d like to plead its case?

  • Discover Felicity’s recipes and many more from your favourite cooks in the new Guardian Feast app, with smart features to make everyday cooking easier and more fun