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.

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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.

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.

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Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Josie A. June 29, 2020
I have been searching and searching for a similar recipe that my Jewish grandmother used to make. My grandmother was born in Vienna Austria and was incredibly lucky to have escaped to the USA right before Hitler invaded.

This dip was known in our family as eggplant dip. I can’t even tell you how many recipes of eggplant dip I’ve read, they all add a crazy amount of ingredients! This is by far the closest and I can’t wait to try it out. My family swears that she only used vinegar, salt and pepper to her dip. I have made it that way, and it doesn’t taste anything like hers. Thank you so much for posting this! I should have used the “Jewish grandmother eggplant dip” for better results!
Wfguffman April 19, 2020
I’ve been eating Pot le gel since I was in diapers. Growing up with a Hungarian mother and Rumanian father, I was subjected to all the different ethnic dishes of both countries. I’m thankful that I kept the recipes and continue to make those traditional recipes without updating them. There is nothing I would change in my grandmothers recipe for pot Le gel.
mz April 14, 2020
My Romanian Jewish family made this with olive oil and a lot of garlic, onion, and a few other ingredients. My father and his brothers always made this when they were together. We called it Pot la ja (Potlaja). And no, there is no Romanian word like Potlajel or Potlaja but, Romania was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for many years and the short version is, Transylvania for many years was administratively part if Hungary. So Turkish and Hungarian were languages of influence in Romania. The word for eggplant in Turkish is patlican (pronounced potlajon) and in Hungarian the word for eggplant is padlizsán.
Helen November 30, 2019
I laughed when I saw the title and then smiled the rest of the time as I read about potlagella. My heritage is Lithuanian and I did not taste eggplant until I visited my Greek in-law relatives. I enjoyed it in every form but never went overboard until I went to Bucharest in 1994. There, while volunteering with a medical mission for a few weeks, I found a tiny bowl and spoon sitting on a small tray in a nook of the clinic room. No crackers or bread, just an oil-glistening spread filling the bowl. I scooped up a tiny amount and tasted. It was, for me, an OMG moment. I had used the only spoon (😬) and wanted more, so my find but was pushed back to make it harder to notice. I returned to it, relished the four or five spoonfuls, and never talked about it until now. I haven’t been able to find anything to equal the flavor. I will be trying this recipe.
Beth M. November 21, 2019
My mother, whose parents were Romanian Jews and who unfortunately died more than 20 years ago, made something she called potlagella. All I knew about it was that it was eggplant and extremely spicy. I was not fond of spice as a child and didn’t like it at all. I would love to know if anybody else’s family made spicy potlagella and if so, what made it spicy.
Joan November 21, 2019
My Goodness!!! Its now a whole year later, and folks are still writing about potlagella!!!! I can't believe it. This wonderful dish has created such a following. Be that as it may, I personally know nothing of a spicy version. But if you love eggplant as all of us seem to, I would suggest you make the most simplest of the recipes and check it out. Most Romanians, their decedents and spouses, and children, grandchildren, etc. seem to really like it. Do not add black pepper or green pepper for that matter!!

seem to agree it is just great. Just do not add any black pepper or, green pepper for that matter!!
Sonnidaze August 10, 2019
In searching for an eggplant salad recipe, what a joy to have found your potlegel!! That is what my mother’s Romanian Jewish mother and our aunts called it. We use roasted pimentoes, garlic, olive oil, lemon and salt. I use my grandmother’s wooden bowl and an ulu (chopper from Alaska) to make it.
Sonnidaze August 10, 2019
OMG. My mother’s family is from Romania. Upon looking to remember what went into my grandmother’s eggplant salad, what a joy to find putlagel which is what they called it! And they too are Romanian Jews. So has anyone heard of a dish they called Siribina.? It was some kind of grated white vegetable, maybe turnip that they ate with chicken fat and salt?
Rebecca June 3, 2019
My grandmother from Romania used to make a version of this. Since there is an eggplant in my fridge, I'm going home to make it! BTW, she pronounced it Putt La Jell, my aunt, her daughter, calls it Putt La Jay.
Gabriela B. May 13, 2019
There is no “potlagel” word in the Romanian language. The word for eggplant is VÂNĂTĂ (plural vinete) and in some regions of Romania it is also called pătlăgeá, or pătlăgică. Maybe in 1800’s the word patlagea was used more often, but not anymore.The correct name of this salad is Salata de vinete. Potlagel is not a word. The sad thing is that people started to make this salad and call it potlagel, the ultimate Romanian eggplant salad, for SEO reasons, but it is wrong and l think the article needs a correction. l noticed that the mistake spreads fast among people who are not Romanian but they ate this salad at one point in their lives. I am also a food blogger, Romanian living in the US.
Joan May 13, 2019
Gabriela, I read your comments with interest, however I think you will note that this entire article from the beginning has generated an unusual amount of interesting replies. Many have come from folks who are descended from Romanian Jews. While I appreciate your take on the nomenclature, I feel that most of us who have had this recipe handed down thru several generations will continue to call it by the name when it was taught to us. Additionally, I would have liked to have read how YOU make the dish as that has lead to so very many discussions here. Thanks,
Sheila March 30, 2019
My father was born in Romania & the family made this without the bell peppers...years ago after that generation had all passed my brother was over joyed when he learned I knew how to make it. Roasted eggplant garlic salt. Sweet onion olive oil & a splash of name but eggplant salad
Madalin S. March 20, 2019
I’m a foodblogger from Romania.

Patlagea vânată= Eggplant
Patlagea roșie= Tomato

To not create confusion everybody use “vânată” and “roșie”.

Everybody called this dish vinete nowadays and patlagea in 1800 because..... it is the main and almost the single dish made out of eggplants 😀. Beside zacusca. The normal name is “salata de vinete” but short is “vinete”.

Regarding the recipe, they are few variations but some mandatory steps:
- always char them on open fire not in the oven. Better directly on coals/burning logs. The taste is dramatically different.
- peel the chared skin and let them drip - there is a bitter liquid
- use sunflower oil, is more neutral

You can go with or without garlic or onions. It can be even very simple only wit salt, lemon juice and sunflower oil.

In the modern times, we have a modern aproach with homemade mayo instead of oil. Try it once and you will be under the spell 😀.

If you add roasted bell pepper that’s a spin, is not Vinete. But also very goood.

Roasted bell peppers are added to zacusca. Zacusca it’s also a balcan dish called in the slavic world Ajvar.

It’s basically roasted eggplants, peppers, onions and tomatoes but stewed for a long time.

First, you need a large cast iron dish. Usually we go for 10, 25 or even 40 kg pots. Put it outside on open fire. Chop the onion and fry it until translucent. Then we add chopped tomatoes and we cook them until we have a thick sauce. We add chopped chared egg plants and peppers and then the condiments: salt, pepper, paprika, bay leaves.

Everything goes in jars in the pantry for the winter.

Do you have any other romanian food memories? 😀
Elana March 31, 2019
Thanks, Madalin!
Roz S. September 3, 2019
You mentioned Salata, I remember salata my grandmother made was from eggplant, onion , garlic green peppers combined with vinegar to make a relish. Is that Correct
Anthony M. March 18, 2019
In Greece there's melitzanosalata, eggplant salad. There are many variations, like here, but my favorite is very similar to yours. Eggplant roasted over charcoals, the flesh scooped out of the skin, removing well-formed seeds as able (that's where the bitterness is), reserving as much of the thick, black juice that accumulates as possible, put in a bowl and chop coarsely with a soup spoon's edge and add finally chopped onion at about a 5 to one ratio. In a separate bowl put a GENEROUS amount of good olive oil, add 1 or two finely minced garlic cloves, salt and red wine vinegar and mix well, then add to eggplant and onion. Seed and finely chop one small tomato and mix in. Add chopped Italian parsley. Adjust taste with more olive oil, salt, or vinegar, as needed. Add some fresh ground black pepper. Allow flavors to marry for a couple hours. The older it is, the grosser it looks, but the better it tastes!
heather S. March 18, 2019
I'd like to add that in reading many of the comments, the vinegar in the story recipe seems to be a new adaptation. Most of the commenters use lemon juice. :)
heather S. March 18, 2019
I had never had this before, but my employer is 2nd generation Romanian Jew and it gets made every two weeks. But it's a very simple version: eggplants roasted over the open gas flame on the stovetop; skins peeled; chopped in a wooden bowl using a porcelain or ceramic plate edge; add chopped onions, olive oil, salt and lemon. Nothing else. And it's amazing!! I have tried to make it at home, but I do not have a wooden bowl, so it never turns out the same. Something about the wooden bowl and the way the eggplant breaks down... it gives it a beautiful texture! Thank you for this story!
Alix R. March 18, 2019
We call it Putlajan and ours doesn't have peppers or red wine vinegar. I'm from a Russian/Romanian jewish family and my mom has been making this my whole life.
Sam March 18, 2019
Patlican (c sounds like j) Turkish for eggplant
Marina A. March 17, 2019
My parents emigrated from Italy, but my dad was Romanian. He was a student in Italy during the war, met my mom and never returned to his native country. We grew up in Detroit where there was a large Romanian Byzantine Catholic community. We were not Jewish, so I only know the Romanian name for this delicious eggplant spread... salata de vinete. The version we made was smoky, due to the fact that we roasted the eggplant over an open fire. The roasted eggplant was then placed on a tilted board and was vertically slit several times in order to drain out some of the liquid. It was peeled and beaten with a mixer along with garlic, chopped onions, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. The texture was quite creamy, punctuated by the crunchy bits of onion. It might be that my mom, being Italian, replaced the vinegar with lemon juice...all I know is that it was delicious!

I am now married to a man of Palestinian descent and often make baba ganoush as onions, more lemon, tahini, garlic, olive oil and salt. I love both versions, as well as Ina Garten's fabulous eggplant spread that includes red pepper and is far chunkier. Using a food processor makes all three versions super simple. You just can't go wrong with eggplant!
[email protected] March 17, 2019
My mothers family was Russian not Romanian. She made a similar recipe all the time and so do I. It is always delicious. I use no oil, lemon juice instead of vinegar and less onion. I dropped the oil while on a diet and have never missed it.
LShore March 16, 2019
This article certainly stuck home! My grandfather was first generation American- his parents came from Romania. They too fled because they were Jewish, with the last name of Schor! But our name got respelled at upon entry to Shore.
We also make a Potlagel, but it’s a bit different. We char the eggplant till it explodes, peel, seed then add olive oil and lemon.
Separately we roast the peppers, peel, seed and add olive oil and vinegar...
Then layer the two on to a piece of soft challah. It’s a dream.
Francese February 21, 2019
My grandfather used to make the eggplant salad he taught me to burn it over the gas (very messy) I either bake it but you don’t get that smoky flavour so I use individual hob covers bought from kosher shops they just leave area where the flame comes through otherwise use tinfoil. He would chop the aubergine flesh to which added finely chopped raw onion (gives it the bite) and tomatoes with cloves of grated “knobel” (garlic) and keep chopping finely mixing with lots olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. I still make it this way and it brings back happy memories. I have tried for years to find out the correct pronounciaton but only found the Turkish version so was pleased when I came across this site as my pronunciation was something like
”poplagelish” which seems to more or less tie in with other commentators.