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.

75 Comments

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 lemon...no 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!
 
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 well...no 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.
 
easknh December 26, 2018
My maternal grandmother was from what is now Romania. She made an eggplant salad that I always thought was called "patnagella". I don't think that it had peppers in it. I think it was one of those things that none of us ever learned how to make.
 
Janet K. December 9, 2018
My mother made it for my father whose mother, I think, came from somewhere around Romania. She is the only grandparent we are a little hazy on her origins and she died in 1948 just as my older sister was born. My mother also used a wooden chopping bowl (what happened to that?) and a chopper, with eggplant, regular oil, reg wine vinegar and onions. I don't think it had garlic. I liked it, too, as I like eggplant in any form. I don't think we had any name for it. I've lived in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, traveled to Turkey a lot and I know the word, "patlejan", used in many of those countries for eggplant. When I went to Turkey for the first time, I asked a friend who had lived there to teach me the word for eggplant because I wanted to make sure I got some. When I asked for it at the first restaurant, they looked at me like I was crazy as of course, they had patlejan. In what form did I want it? It was like asking for bread or water.
 
fuzzytop December 9, 2018
Sounds delicious. Incidentally, the Turkish word for eggplant is "patlican" (with a cedille on the "c"), pronounced roughly "POT-lee-jon".
 
AiA November 22, 2018
Each household has it`s own recipe for salata de vinete (eggplant salad) as well as for zacusca. The main thing about these kind of dishes is that they are like jazz. People always improvised and i think this won`t change in the future. There are houses where you have a range of recipes that you make, depending on the mood (they come from different grandmas/great-grandmas). And yes! Eggplants are kept in the freezer after they are baked on wood fire for further use and zacusca is preserved in the pantry, for the same purpose. This is familiar to all Eastern Europe and my friend that is a very good cook tells me that it might have come from the Turks... I agree. We have a lot of dishes that came from that part of the world but my opinion is that one cannot appropriate this kind of stuff... they are alive, and always changing and it may be difficult to say where it started. My favorite kind of ”salata de vinete” is the one with mayonnaise (apparently a newer version) and garlic, a little bit of onion and salt. It pinches your tongue but you cannot stop eating. I eat it with fresh tomatoes and goat/sheep salted cheese ... and maybe some ”clisă” (smoked pork fat) or bacon. It is essentially a late summer dish that tells you still have time to enjoy the sun...but not that much. On the other hand, my favorite zacusca is the one my father`s mom use to do. The red pepper and the eggplant are baked on wood fire and then added to the pan-fried onion and at the end added ”bulion” (bouillon in french. I suppose it`s tomato broth in english - I am not a native english speaker) + Spices: salt, pepper, bay leaves. There is another dish, very similar to zacusca, called ”ghiveci”, but this one is made mainly to eat on the spot, not to preserve it. And it is based on the tomato part of ”pătlăgea” (as you already know from the comments, the two - eggplant (pătlăgea vânătă) and tomato (pătlăgea roșie) - are sisters). This one is as jazzy as the others. ”Câte bordeie, atâtea obiceie” - So many countries, so many customs... or, in our case, so many households, so many customs! Poftă bună!
 
Cynthia E. March 18, 2019
AiA has it! My Romanian grandmother made neither dish, but I fell in love with Romanian Zacusca while living there. Now I buy Bulgarian Ajvar which is close. I have never had salata de vinete with peppers, it is always eggplant and onion.
 
Carole L. November 21, 2018
My grandmother and my mother always grated in a piece of dill pickle along with grated onion, olive oil, mashed up garlic, salt, bit of red wine vinegar and tons of black pepper. This eggplant caviar MUST be placed on top of a buttered piece of good bakery rye bread along with a thin slice of garden fresh tomato.
My family came over in the 1870s and this has been on the Saturday night dinner table since they arrived.
 
MW November 21, 2018
This appears to be a phonetic variant of the Yiddish work for eggplant : patlezhan. You might also call it zakucha, depending on the in Romania.
 
Mj L. November 20, 2018
I make this and LOVE it but I don’t know where I got it. Must have had it somewhere but not from my NYC Russian/West Tennessee family. I use a red bell pepper.
 
Elizabeth November 20, 2018
This was the only recipe I learned from my father. His mother was from Bucharest. My Grandma Jennie’s eggplant had no bell pepper. It was eggplant, olive oil, onion, garlic, and lemon juice. S&P . We ate it on dark rye. My dad called Grandma Jennie’s eggplant. So delicious except for making my tongue itch. Maybe a pinch of sugar would help?
 
Stacy C. December 5, 2018
My great grandmother was known as Jennie (Czarna from Iasi) and this sounds the closest to the version my mother learned to make.
 
CH November 14, 2018
Ukrainians call this ecrah. heavy on the vinegar, but otherwise as you have it