The spicy history of baba ganoush

Q: I have a word—actually two words—that I just love saying: “baba ganoush.” To get the full effect, you need to say it out loud and quickly, with enthusiasm (and emphasize the first “b”).

A: Eggplant is not our favorite vegetable, but we also love the term “baba ganoush.” It’s a joy to pronounce. Did you know that it may have been born in a harem?

First, the food itself, which generally appears as an appetizer or side dish.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “baba ganoush” as “a Middle Eastern (originally Lebanese) dish of puréed roasted aubergine, garlic, and tahini.” Often other ingredients are added, like mint, onions, and various spices.

Now for the name. It comes from the Arabic phrase baba gannuj, in which baba can mean father or daddy (or an endearment), and gannuj can mean coquettish or pampered.

The dish, the OED says, was named “perhaps with reference to its supposed invention by a member of a royal harem.” So the pampered daddy may have been a sultan.

Oxford’s first citation for the use of the term in English is from Scudder Middleton’s book Dining, Wining, and Dancing in New York (1938):

“The meal begins with sesame seed, ground to a paste and mixed either with eggplant or simple oil and lemon juice and called either Babba Gannouge or Hommes Lit Tahena.”

Here’s a more recent example, from a 2004 issue of Time Out New York: “Snack on classic Middle Eastern fare like stuffed grape leaves, hummus and baba ghanoush.”

Even if it weren’t such a popular snack, we’d bet that baba ganoush would live on, if only because of its wonderfully musical name!

And incidentally, it’s spelled all kinds of ways; we’ve used the OED’s modern English spelling.

But The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has it as “baba ghanouj,” or “baba ghannouj,” or “baba ganoosh.”

And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has it as “baba ghanoush” or “baba ghanouj.”

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