This Turkish lamb stew with eggplant, hünkar beğendi, is a wonderful combination of tender lamb in a tomato-based sauce over a bed of creamy eggplant-bechamel sauce. It's comforting and delicious - no wonder it goes by the name "Sultan's delight".
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Lamb has always been one of my favorite meats. True, it doesn't have that variety in the cuts like pork, nor is it as flexible in how you flavor it as chicken is, but I do love the flavor of lamb. It's probably no surprise some of our family's favorite meals include lamb, like youvetsi, kofte and braised lamb shanks.
When I came across this Turkish lamb recipe I knew it was one we were bound to enjoy. I am also a big fan of eggplant/aubergine which pairs really well with lamb too. It's a combination found in a number of Middle Eastern dishes, and for good reason.
What are the origins of this dish?
Other than being Turkish, the exact origins of the dish are unclear and you'll find a number of different stories around it. It is said to have been prepared for a Sultan during the Ottoman empire who liked it so much it was given the name "Hünkar beğendi" meaning "The Sultan is delighted/pleased", often translated as "Sultan's Delight".
Exactly which Sultan led to the name is particularly hazy. One popular story is is that it was served for Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, during a visit to the then Sultan. Others believe it was someone else. But the general theme is it was served to royalty and popular, and the rest is history.
A simpler high society dish
Many cultures, particularly those that had a ruling class, have dishes that originated in the courts and others that were more everyday. The high society dishes tended to be elaborate and with expensive ingredients. Meanwhile, what was considered peasant cooking used lesser cuts and more humble ingredients. The former was about showing off, while the latter was making the most of what you had.
This dish traditionally uses leg of lamb, which was a more expensive cut, but otherwise it doesn't fully fit the regal mould. The ingredients are relatively everyday and you don't need that many of them. You do have a couple steps in making the eggplant base, but the stew itself is very straightforward.
One of the other nice things about this dish is that you can prepare the lamb stew part ahead of time as it reheats really well. In fact, you can prepare all of it ahead (the eggplant sauce just needs a little more care in storing and re-heating).
I've drawn on a few resources in creating this recipe, trying to keep it as authentic as possible - I've particularly drawn on this Ozlem's Turkish Table recipe and this Turkey's for Life recipe. It might look like a lot of steps, but it's really not as difficult as you might think. And as I say, much (if not all) can be done ahead of time.
Preparing the eggplant for this dish
The eggplant in one of the things that needs a little more preparation in this, but it's all worthwhile. These steps help add flavor, remove bitterness and create a texture that gets past much of what some people are less sure about with this vegetable.
Some dislike the skin which can be more bitter. Others find the texture strange. And I can understand that some are put off by dishes where it absorbs an excessive amount of oil.
For this, however, you don't cook the eggplant in oil, don't eat the skin and the eggplant puree is combined with a smooth cheese sauce so the texture is more hidden.
You can even vary how hidden the texture is. If you prefer, you can simply mash the eggplant so that is is a little more chunky. Alternatively, you can blend it smooth and strain the seeds out, if you have time, for a completely silky smooth sauce.
If possible, cook the eggplant over an open flame either on the grill or by resting over a gas burning stove. Both help give that nice smokey flavor. If these aren't an option, you can also roast in the oven.
While it might seem like yet another step, I highly recommend taking a little time to drain off some of the juices that come out of the flesh as it cools. They can be bitter, so it's worth removing what you can.
Make ahead tips
The lamb stew part of this dish is ideal to make ahead and re-heat when you need it. You can refrigerate it up to a day or two, or freeze it if making further ahead.
You can also grill or roast the eggplant for the sauce ahead of time. I'd recommend you only do so at most the day before. In some ways, you may find it better to leave the eggplant whole until nearer when you use it as the pureed form tends to discolor. You can reduce this by adding a little lemon juice. It will also be less obvious when you mix the eggplant into the sauce.
You can make the whole sauce ahead of time as well. If you do, be sure to cover it with cling wrap/film touching the surface to stop it developing a 'skin' on top. Then remove this before gently re-heating and serving. You may need to add a little more milk to thin the mixture slightly.
How to serve this dish
To serve, you can either spread the eggplant sauce base over a platter and top with the stew or prepare each plate with some sauce at the bottom and stew on top. Since this has both the stew and eggplant sauce, you don't need much more with it. But some bread on the side is a good idea to mop up all the wonderful flavors.
This Turkish lamb stew with eggplant, hunkar begendi, might seem elaborate or unusual, but don't be deceived. It's easier than you might think and the combination of flavors and textures is so good. Both are stew and creamy sauce are delicious, and even better together. So it's easy to see why this dish is fit for a Sultan. And hopefully you will love it too.
Try these other delicious stews from around the world:
- Aji de gallina (Peruvian chicken stew with a creamy chili-nut sauce)
- Roman lamb stew (abbacchio alla cacchiatora, with rosemary, garlic and anchovy)
- Fabada Asturiana (Spanish pork and bean stew)
- Bo kho (Vietnamese beef stew with coconut water and lemongrass)
- Plus get more mains dishes in the archives.
Turkish lamb stew with eggplant, Hünkar beğendi
For the lamb stew:
- 1 ½ lb leg of lamb diced in roughly bite-sized pieces (trimmed, boneless weight)
- ¼ teaspoon salt approx
- ¼ teaspoon pepper approx
- 1 onion large, or 2 medium
- ½ green pepper or 1 whole if small
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 cups chopped tomatoes recommend chopped fresh tomatoes, around 3, or if using canned, use crushed or finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 cup light stock eg chicken/vegetable, or use water
For eggplant-bechamel sauce:
- 3 lb eggplant aubergine, approx 3 med-large
- 3 tablespoon butter
- 3 tablespoon flour
- 1 ¼ cups milk approx, ideally warmed
- 1 ½ oz grated parmesan or cheddar or a blend of both
To make lamb stew:
- Season the pieces of lamb with salt and pepper. Dice the onion relatively finely and dice the pepper. Finely chop the garlic.
- Warm the oil in a Dutch oven or large pot over a medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook for around 5 minutes until softened and translucent. Add the lamb and brown on all sides then add the green pepper and garlic. Stir and cook a couple more minutes.
- Add the tomatoes, thyme, oregano and tomato paste to the pot. Stir through to mix and cook a minute then add the stock/water. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover with a lid then reduce the heat so that the sauce is gently simmering. Leave to cook for around 1 hour so that the lamb is tender. You may want to have the lid only half-on for part of this time to help it reduce a little.
To make eggplant-bechamel sauce:
- Meanwhile, cook the eggplant. If possible, cook the eggplant on a grill/BBQ or sitting over a gas burner (you may want to cover around the burner with foil to catch any drips. Alternatively, preheat the oven to 430F/220C, prick the eggplant all over with a knife and place it on a baking sheet or in a baking dish. Roast for around 40 minutes. In all cases, you are looking for the inside of the eggplant to become very soft and if over grill/flame the skin should be well charred. Once cooked, leave the eggplant to cool down so that it is safe to handle when opened up.
- Once cooled, cut open the eggplant skin and scoop out the flesh. Either roughly chop and mash the flesh for a coarser texture, or blend up for a smoother paste. In both cases, once roughly chopped, try to drain off as much liquid as you can as this can make it more sour. If you want a really smooth puree, you can press the mixture through a fine strainer to remove the seeds.
- Melt the butter in a medium-small saucepan over a medium heat then once melted, add the flour. Stir as it cooks a couple minutes and becomes gently nutty smelling.
- Gradually add the milk and stir or whisk in after each addition to make a smooth paste. Cook a minute or two more, as needed, to thicken slightly.
- Remove from the heat then add the cheese and stir through so that it mixes in and melts. Add the eggplant puree and stir to mix through evenly. Season with a little salt and pepper to taste.
- To serve, either spread some of the eggplant sauce over the bottom of individual plates or all of it on the bottom of a serving platter. In both cases, spread it out with a slight shallow area in the middle to hold the stew. Add the lamb stew in the middle of the eggplant sauce and serve with bread on the side.
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I first shared the recipe for Hunkar begendi, Sultan's delight on Curious Cuisiniere where I am a contributor.