My Family Recipe

The Greatest Eggplant Recipe Comes From Romania, So Why Has No One Heard of It?

The mysterious case of my great-great grandma’s “potlagel.”

November  6, 2018
Photo by Mark Weinberg

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.


My grandma’s grandma left Romania for America 130-something years ago. She was 12 or 13 or 14 and her name was Anna “S-c-h-o-r,” Grandma spelled to me over the phone. When I asked why Anna left, she sounded surprised by the question. Wasn’t it obvious? “Because we’re Jewish.”

In the late 19th century, there was a mass emigration of Jews leaving Eastern Europe, largely to Western Europe and the United States. According to A History of the Jewish People by H.H. Ben-Sasson: “In Rumania, the government and population conducted an economic war on the Jews, the declared aim of which was to drive them out of the country.”

And so Anna left. It goes without saying that I never met her, but Grandma says she was sweet, “a lovely housewife and mother.” She was also a lovely cook, which, unlike her surname, I already knew. I’ve been eating Anna’s spoonable, garlicky, olive oily eggplant spread my entire life.

It’s a simple dish: You roast an eggplant and bell pepper into oblivion. Peel and chop them. Mix with raw onion and garlic, olive oil and vinegar. Lots of salt. And that’s it.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“In south romania we make it simple with just smoked eggplant, raw onion and olive oil with salt. In center romania and moldova, some people mix everything with maionese and in the south-east we add bell peeper or sweet pepper and some people also add chopped tomatoes. We serve it cold, some times very salted or spicy and other times we use vinegar (when use vinegar all ingredients are chopped into little cubes, otherwise just chop it very good so you can spread it on a slice of bread). In romanian "patlagea vanata" = eggplant and "patlagea rosie" = tomato, so patlagea is just the name of these vegetables. We use the short form for both (vanata=eggplant and rosie=tomato). The romanian term for the receipe is "salata de vinete" = "eggplant salad", the term patlagea vanata is used for eggplant only in the dictionary, but just "patlagea" doesnt mean enything.”
— Colo D.
Comment

If you want to know what it’s called, well, same. I don’t know. No one in my family does, at least not for sure. When I was growing up, we called it “Grandma’s eggplant,” or “Grandma eggplant,” or shorter still, “eggplant.”

Its Romanian name fell off the map years ago. When I asked Grandma what she called it when she was growing up, her answer turned out to be the same as mine: “We just called it ‘eggplant,’” she laughed. “Or chopped eggplant. Or eggplant appetizer.”

But I kept wondering what Anna called it.


Sometime in the last few years, we started to think the mystery word might be potlagel, pronounced pot-lah-gel. Google this and you’ll get an unconvincing 5,960 results. Yet the top hits lead to blog comment sections that sound a lot like my family’s living room: people talking about the best eggplant dish they ever ate, which came from a grandmother who came from Romania.

Say, on Tales of a Kitchen, the author Chris Anca shares a recipe for “Traditional Roasted Eggplant Salad.” She writes about how “back home, in Romania, we had to cook with the seasons.” Her mother froze roasted eggplants just to make this dish—a close cousin to Anna’s recipe. Anca’s family uses mustard, ours doesn’t. We include roasted bell pepper, they don’t. But the spirit is the same.

The comment section is where it gets good:

“Exact recipe my great grandmother always made except for the mustard,” Joanna writes. “I’m 3 generations away from Romanian living so I speak, well…none. My great grandmother always called this dish something that sounded like: pot laja. Can you tell me the actual Romanian name?”

“Oh, I think it has different traditional names depending on region within Romania!” Anca replies. “We just call it eggplant ‘salad.’”

Then everyone starts chiming in.

“We call it potlagel,” Lynn says. “My mother has been craving it lately (her mother was Roumanian)—so I’ve been making it for her. No mustard or lemon juice in our recipe (although I would like to add some, or some garlic), as Mom wants it with just onions.”

Rebecca’s grandmother “made that also!” But she spelled it “put la jell.”

Fredi’s grandmother also made that also! Her family called it “putlagella” but “I have no idea how it is spelled!”

So at least I’m not the only one.

If you start to beep-boop-bop on Google translate, these words start to make more sense. Translate the English eggplant into Romanian and you get vânătă or pătlăgea vânătă. Similarly, translate eggplant into Yiddish and you get פּאַטלעזשאַן or patlezhan. Both of which sound pretty close to potlagel.

Then I hit a bump in the road. The more digging I did, the more I started to notice another, totally different term: salata de vinete. On the blog My Weekend Kitchen, author Ashima Ashima Goyal Siraj writes: “Romanians actually call this deliciously smoky eggplant dip, a salad—Salata de Vinete (eggplant salad).”

Indeed, the plural eggplants translates to the Romanian vinete, a derivative of the above vânătă. Meanwhile, salad translates to salată (big surprise). Why didn’t that name stick around in my family? Herman Edel’s book Red Horse Radish has an idea:

“What is ‘Salada de Venita’? Well first of all, that is its Romanian name, while it is called ‘Potla Jel’ in Yiddish and probably had as many other names as there were other tongues spoken in this crazy world. Whatever the name, it is simply the most delicious salad that has ever been created.”

Or is it? The easy explanation for potlagel’s apparent lack of popularity would be: People don’t like eggplant spread (or salad or dip or whatever you want to call it). But we all know that isn’t true. Because eggplant spread is pretty popular.

Just ask baba ganoush. This Middle Eastern eggplant spread recipe yields, let’s see, 1,920,000 results on Google. One of which is an eggplant roundup by Bon Appétit called “Beyond Baba Ganoush”, as if baba ganoush is the default way to use an eggplant. And maybe it is.

What exactly distinguishes baba ganoush is up for debate. The Guardian published a piece breaking down all the ingredient possibilities, such as tahini, yogurt, parsley, mint, cumin, and pomegranate. “Is this delicious smoky dip the ultimate aubergine recipe?” the author Felicity Cloake asks. If you’re asking in a headline, the answer is probably: probably.

In any case, the ultimate eggplant recipe is definitely not potlagel.

Maybe because, these days, no one can agree on one name or spelling. Maybe because, compared to baba ganoush, it’s a lot simpler. There aren’t a lot of possibilities. There isn’t tahini to make it creamy and rich. There’s just smoky eggplant, unapologetically raw onion, and a modest amount of olive oil. It sounds boring from afar.

So why not change it? Increase the olive oil. Caramelize the onions. Add mashed anchovies. Add lemon zest. Add paprika. Add all the fresh herbs! But I never thought to do any of this. And I should have, right? It’s my literal job to develop recipes.

By definition, develop means “cause to grow and become more mature, advanced, or elaborate.” In other words, I loved the chocolate-peanut butter cookies my mom made growing up, but I wanted them to be fudgier and less sweet and saltier. I always asked for second helpings of our go-to tomato-saucy brisket, but this year, I wanted to find out what would happen if I braised it in milk instead.

So what makes potlagel the exception? I wish I had a meaningful answer. Something like: Because Anna leaving Romania was the start of my family’s life in America, the start of my life in America, preserving the way she prepared this dish is preserving my ancestors’ memory, my family history, my truest identity.

But it isn’t like that. I just think her eggplant tastes really, really good, exactly as it is.


Even when you try to keep something the same, it changes. When I asked Grandma if she adjusted the recipe at all, she told me, “I try to make it just like she did.” But then, when she started listing the details, there were discrepancies: a green bell pepper when I’ve always used yellow, a pinch of sugar which I had never seen anyone add.

“Just a little!” Grandma explained. “Because eggplants can be bitter.”

Or they used to be. These days, not as much, just like certain cuts of pork used to be fatty but now are lean. Ingredients aren’t the same as they were 130-something years ago. Which means potlagel can’t be either.

Of course, this doesn’t explain the green bell pepper morphing into yellow. But I can explain that: my mom. She hates green bell peppers.

She also loves Fuchsia Dunlop. (It’ll make sense in a second, I swear.) Fuchsia Dunlop is an English cookbook author who specializes in Chinese cuisine. In 2013, she published a book called Every Grain of Rice that I couldn’t stop cooking from. So I recommended it to my mom and then she couldn’t stop cooking from it.

In Every Grain of Rice, there’s a recipe for Smoky Eggplant With Garlic. Dunlop writes: “The smoky flavor of charred eggplant is the soul of Middle Eastern baba ganoush and it’s also used in this Sichuanese appetizer.” Instead of onion, there are scallions. Instead of olive oil, chili oil. Instead of red wine vinegar, Chinkiang vinegar.

If you want to know what it’s called, well, same. I don’t know. No one in my family does, at least not for sure. When I was growing up, we called it "Grandma’s eggplant," or "Grandma eggplant," or shorter still, "eggplant."

It tastes good. But it doesn’t taste like potlagel. Whenever my mom makes eggplant spread nowadays, she makes it like Fuchsia. And just like that, over a century after Anna left Romania, our family’s go-to eggplant recipe is changed forever.

Or it’s always been changing. I’m a culprit of that, too.

If there were one constant between Anna’s potlagel and ours, it’s the lack of a recipe. Until now. This is the first time I’ve ever seen our version written down, so the odds that it’s exactly like Anna made it aren’t just improbable. They’re impossible. Even she didn’t make it the same every time.

So I guess my recipe developing did get in the way after all. I felt the need to document something that was always just a conversation between generations, relatives spoon-feeding each other, asking, “What else does it need? More olive oil? More salt?”

It always needs more olive oil. It always needs more salt.

But eventually, there’s a look in the other person’s eyes, whether they’re my grandmother’s or my mother’s or my own, a look that says, "Yes. Yes, that’s it! That’s what I remember."

Have you ever heard of potlagel? Please share whatever you know in the comments.

48 Comments

CH November 14, 2018
Ukrainians call this ecrah. heavy on the vinegar, but otherwise as you have it
 
Pamela F. November 14, 2018
hi again, my mother made mamaliga too. I believe that's a corn cereal, is that correct? do you know how to make it?<br />
 
Felice C. November 14, 2018
Mamaliga is basically polenta. My Romanian grandparents served it w/meat and gravy over it.
 
Joan November 14, 2018
Hi Pamela, yes it is!! Made like oatmeal or cream of wheat. Please see my post of 11/13/18. Amazing all these similar foods we all share from the same heritage! I’m certain Emma never expected this reaction.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 15, 2018
It has been a truly wonderful surprise!
 
Felice C. November 14, 2018
My grandparents came from Romania as well and we make eggplant salad (potlege is how w pronounce it) as well. Ours is a little different, no bell pepper or garlic. We really burn the eggplant to get that great flavor. My mom taught it to me and we just love it. And yes we also make mamaliga!!
 
Joan November 12, 2018
Imagine my surprise when I came upon this article because my husband’s grandmother came from Romania and taught me to make Potlajela when I was a young bride in 1960. It’s amazing to read all these similar articles about all these Nana’s handing down the same basic recipe. In fact, I have her wooden chopping bowl which is earmarked for my middle granddaughter. Now I can spell this wonderful dish and give her a printed recipe!! BTW, do you know the dish, mamaliga? Also Romanian.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 13, 2018
Thank you for sharing this, Joan! It's amazing to hear how so many families have such similar stories. Never heard of mamaliga, but so cool to see that we have a recipe on the site for it: https://food52.com/recipes/14082-basic-mamaliga. Does your family make this, too?
 
Joan November 13, 2018
We make this rather like “oatmeal” and eat with butter, etc. for breakfast! Many nationalities probably do not eat this for breakfast, but rather as polenta as I’m certain you and your readers know there are 100’s of ways to prepare for lunch or dinner. Because my husband’s grandmother made this for him during the war when sugar was rationed, he uses salt, rather than sugar!! Eats oatmeal same way. Ugh!
 
Marsha W. November 14, 2018
Mamaliga is basically corn meal mush whisk left to solidify, cut into slices and then sautéed. Very similar to Polenta. Both mamaliga and potlagel were favorited of my father’s and I grew up with them.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 14, 2018
Yum! That sounds like such a wonderful, wintery breakfast. I'd probably add lots of butter and maple syrup :)
 
Felice C. November 14, 2018
We make both eggplant salad and mamaliga! My grandparents were from Galatz Romania. All my family on that side cook really well.
 
Dali November 12, 2018
Hello,<br />As Ivana mentioned, in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia, eggplant is known as patlidžan.<br />The salad you speak about but without onion, only garlic is our winter staple and much more than a salad. Our mothers and grandmothers prepare it every end of summer and we love it as a spread on our bread.<br />If there is patlidžan in the spread, we call it pindžur. If it is made only from roasted red papers (paprika) and tomato, than is called ajvar. In Serbia, a national competition in making ajvar is organized every year. It is the food of our childhood, too. <br />Thank you very much for your article. I enjoyed very much reading it.
 
Ivana November 13, 2018
After reading your comment I remebered stumbling upon "green ajvar" on Coolinarica. It's a macedonian dish called malidžano and the only thing it's lacking to be the same as potlagel is onion and garlic.<br />From wiki:<br />Malidzano is a traditional Macedonian spread made from puréed bell peppers, eggplant, oil, salt and mustard (optional). It derives its name from the Italian word for eggplant, melanzane. Malidzano is usually served as an appetizer with a side of bread like spread and piece of white cheese. In other countries of Western Balkans (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia), it is prepared with both green or red peppers so the color of the spread depends from that.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 13, 2018
So glad you enjoyed reading, Dali—and thank you so much for sharing this wonderful information about the recipe!
 
Ivana November 12, 2018
In Serbian, eggplant is called патлиџан (patlidžan). Balkan loves its eggplants and its patlidžans 😊.<br />It seems to me that it is quite possible that the salad was called simply eggplant, but in Romanian.<br />
 
Sanziana F. November 11, 2018
“Pãtlãgicã” is anothwr name for eggplant (“vânãtã”) in Romanian. Nowadays it’s not a term that is used as much but was quite widespread in the 1900s.
 
Pamela F. November 11, 2018
yes, my grandma who’s family were Romanian Jews and who’s name was Anna too, taught my mother how to make “potlagella”! I too have never seen this name written down ever...I’ve only known it verbally. There is a secret to this recipe, I believe as my mother’s dish deliciousness came from putting the eggplant on a long fork and roasting on top of the stove right on the flame. Then letting it cool down, perhaps in a brown old fashioned paper bag wher then the blckened skin can be removed. From there you chop in a wooden bowl, adding a wonderful olive oil, garlic, salt and lemon juice and/or finelly chopped onion. Place in a jar and let marinate, scrumptious. What a delight for me have found your article. Pam Frost [email protected]
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 13, 2018
Thank you so much for sharing your (and your Anna's!) story, Pamela. Really interesting to see that another reader, Joan, mentioned a wooden bowl, too. Will have to ask my grandma if we have one of these hiding somewhere in the attic...
 
Diana S. November 11, 2018
Childhood revisited. My mother made this for my father who adored it. She served it with lovely tomatoes, cucumbers and plenty of salt. Olive oil, of course. Potlagella forever!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 13, 2018
Forever! :)
 
Lex S. November 11, 2018
I'm romanian and from my experience eggplant salad used sunflower seed oil. Olive oil gives it a bitter taste.<br />My mom used to make it with homemade yolk only mayonnaise. It was the best thing ever.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 13, 2018
Love the idea of making it with mayonnaise!
 
Peggy November 11, 2018
My mom makes something nearly identical but without the bell pepper. She calls it a Russian word that translates to “green salad” in English. My family is Jewish and hails from Ukraine/Moldova bordering Romania. We serve it in the center of a shallow a bowl with cut up tomato wedges and toasted bread.
 
btglenn November 11, 2018
I make this like my Mom did, eggplant baked until tender in the oven, with onion, olive oil, and lemon juice to taste. She came from Ukraine/Moldava as you family did, and she called it Eggplant Caviar. My aunt Clara, who spent time in Palestine, preferred hers baked over a fire to make it smoky -- more Middle Eastern.
 
Mia November 12, 2018
There is a similar widespread recipe in Ukraine that uses uses unrefined sunflower oil instead of olive (mostly driven by availability). It is still called Eggplant Caviar (баклажанська ікра) and it is so popular mass produced versions are sold in grocery stores. Some families also include shredded carrots, but not all.
 
W J. November 11, 2018
Very interesting. Whenever I research traditional dishes passed down from my mother's Hungarian-Slovak family and the changes made over the years and decades by the intervening cooks, I find that a simple rule explains a lot. That rule is that, unlike today where "exotic" ingredients sourced from all over the world are readily available, my family used what they had. <br /><br />Peasant food, I call it. Variations born of necessity, sometimes became the new tradition.<br /><br />If cabbage was cheap and plentiful, for example, dishes were featured with cabbage. If eggplant was available, well then we saw amazing dishes created with eggplant. <br /><br />Unlike the present era of "factory food," all meals started from basic ingredients on hand or previously preserved for the most part. <br /><br />In some cases, I spent years (before the Internet) trying to recreate the old names of dishes.<br /><br />You can bet I am anxious to try your potlagel. I will bet that my ancestors would probably have recognized it, though they would have likely called it something a bit different.
 
isabels November 11, 2018
Patlijaan is eggplant in turkish
 
Lisa B. November 11, 2018
Yes! We have Nana’s eggplant! Never tastes the same when we make it. She put the eggplants on the glass burners to char for that smoky flavour. Family came over in the 1880s from Buhusi, Iasi and Focsani area. I have found a close local DC brand of baba ghanouj that tastes similar, all natural and love supporting small business. Travelled all around the different “eggplant dip” regions of the world and all very delicious variations, but Nana’s eggplant was the best! I am sure any grandchild would think the same. Thanks for this article!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 11, 2018
Thank you for sharing your story, Lisa!
 
Colo D. November 8, 2018
Hi, this romanian traditional receipee has a lot of sisters and cousins in turkey, greece and middle east and all of them are based on eggplant as the main engredient. In south romania we make it simple with just smoked eggplant, raw onion and olive oil with salt. In center romania and moldova, some people mix everything with maionese and in the south-east we add bell peeper or sweet pepper and some people also add chopped tomatoes. We serve it cold, some times very salted or spicy and other times we use vinegar (when use vinegar all ingredients are chopped into little cubes, otherwise just chop it very good so you can spread it on a slice of bread). In romanian "patlagea vanata" = eggplant and "patlagea rosie" = tomato, so patlagea is just the name of these vegetables. We use the short form for both (vanata=eggplant and rosie=tomato). The romanian term for the receipe is "salata de vinete" = "eggplant salad", the term patlagea vanata is used for eggplant only in the dictionary, but just "patlagea" doesnt mean enything.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 8, 2018
Thank you so much for sharing all this fantastic info!
 
David W. November 8, 2018
My grandmother used to make this dish! She was the child of Romanian Jews, and called it putlagella. My dad told me the recipe and it was identical to yours except it had celery in place of bell pepper, and lots of dill added! I loved it as a kid and still make it now.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 8, 2018
Whoa to celery and dill! I'll have to try that. Thank you so much for replying here.
 
Ellen November 7, 2018
This was the one dish my mother learned to make from my father’s mother, who was born in Rumania. My father, my older brother and I all loved the dish. My mother and middle brother wouldn’t eat it on a bet. I learned to make it when I was a teenager. When I had my own apartment in NYC in the early 1970’s, I would venture to the Essex Street Markets, a public market on New York’s Lower East Side. One day, I was shopping and picked up a nice fat purple eggplant. I then asked the vendor where the green peppers were. He laughed and said, “Hah! A Rumanian!” He knew what I was making.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 8, 2018
Oh my gosh, what a story! Thank you so much for sharing this.
 
Jessica B. November 6, 2018
I’m Romanian and I call this dish “zacuska”
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 7, 2018
Thank you for sharing this, Jessica—it means a lot to me to learn more about the dish.
 
Danuta G. November 7, 2018
In Polish, the word zakuski means hors d'oeuvres. I believe it's the same in Russian (and probably similar in any East European language). Any type of hors d'oeuvres which this dish would be an example of. Of course, you'd have to get your own dish, as I wouldn't share this one, it sounds absolutely divine!
 
Petra A. November 8, 2018
Zacusca is another amazing romanian dish, similar to salata de vinete, but veryvery different in taste. I am Romanian too and was born and raised there... there are many different versions of zacusca, but all of them have another common ingredient and that is roasted tomatoes and a lot of cooked onion, unlike salata de vinete which has only a few ingredients, main one being vinete or eggplant and raw onions. Just google it if you don’t believe me.
 
Marianna November 6, 2018
We make the exactly same spread in Greece. The only difference is that we don't include peppers. We call it eggplant salad.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 7, 2018
So cool! Wondering: How do you usually serve it? And what do you usually serve it with?
 
Chris November 6, 2018
There's a similar Turkish dish called patlikan saladasi - also referred to as a salad, and "patlikan" sounds awfully similar to patlagea. It always seems to include eggplant and peppers, and sometimes tomato.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 6, 2018
That does sound awfully similar! Interesting that the version you mention and the Egyptian one below both include tomato; I've got to try that.
 
Eric K. November 6, 2018
So interesting!