My Babushka (Grandmother in Russian) was a feisty, beautiful and eccentric woman who made the best Russian & Ukrainian dishes. Her maiden name which she preferred to go by toward the end of her life was Valentina Angelova (1913-2006). She was born in Odessa, Ukraine and escaped with my Mom who was 4 and her husband during WWII. Making dishes such as this Ikra was nostalgic for her and her way of socializing while sharing her culture. This recipe was adapted by my Mom and now me. Eggplant Caviar is a vegetarian/vegan spread that can be served as an appetizer or just spread on toast for a light lunch. I'm actually enjoying some right on toast as I write this post. At home, we often served eggplant caviar on petit pumpernickel bread just like you would serve actual expensive Beluga caviar. Ikra luckily is much easier on the pocketbook.
My Babushka & this Recipe
My Babushka, Valya (short for Valentina) was a special lady. I am sharing this recipe with my Mom's permission. I think my Babushka will be smiling down on me sharing it with the world. Babushka LOVED to entertain and she lived for sharing her culture and food with others. She was a Russian Language Instructor in Monterey, California for the Defense Language Institute. Her students loved her and she adored them as well. She entertained them often outside school hours. She would invite them to her home to continue practicing Russian and share her love of Russian & Ukrainian cuisine. Ikra is a dish she served to as an appetizer before moving on to a main course like kotlety or borscht. I still recall her out of this world "green borscht" that I hope to add to my site in the future as well.
Russians & Ukrainians love to entertain guests with food. They sing and tell stories over a big meal (and boy, what stories they have, as my Babushka did). No matter how poor they are, they feed you the best they have on hand when you enter their home. I learned that from my travels to Russia and saw that often when I'd visit my Babushka. Only the best will do for guests.
What is Ikra?
Ikra is a vegetable spread made primarily of eggplants and sweet peppers. In Odessa, Ukraine, it is also referred to as "Ikra iz Baklazhan" (Икра из Баклажан) which means Caviar made of eggplants. I've been told it looks similar to caponata, but I honestly have never had caponata. Although many ingredients are quite different.
Ikra is zesty, or as my Mom and Babushka used to say, it has a little "bite." This "bite" is not spicy, it's more of a slight zing from the vinegar or lemon juice and some bite from the garlic. My grandmother did put raw garlic in her Ikra sometimes, but that's a little hard for some to tolerate, so I just give mine a quick cook to mellow it out just a tad, but not lose the bite. My husband especially loves this recipe and says he can't describe the taste, but like me we both just say Mmm quietly as we take a bite. It's definitely a foodie's kind of spread. For some, an acquired taste I'd say.
How to Make Ikra
This spread is made by roasting eggplants and sweet peppers. For added sweetness, onions are caramelized while the vegetables are roasting. This vegetarian spread has a bit of a lengthier process, but that's exactly how many Slavic recipes are. They take a bit of work to make, and the recipes make a big batch (because why waste your time unless you make enough to share), but it's so worth it! The payoff, the taste, the wow factor when you put that bite of Ikra in your mouth is worth every minute you spent making it.
Variations of Ikra
There really is no right or wrong way to make Ikra. It does however vary by the location it originated from and as with many recipes it has morphed over time, being passed from one hand to another. I've seen recipes include carrots, zucchini, parsley and even jalapenos, but I have no idea how that came about. My Mom told me that this variation of eggplant caviar is distinctly "Southern." This is most likely again, due to the fact that my Babushka is from Odessa, Ukraine which is pretty far South for the former Soviet Union, highly Russian influenced area.
The Roasting of the Vegetables and Onion Caramelization is done simultaneously
Why is Caviar in the Name?
Eggplant caviar is like the poor man's caviar. No there is not actual caviar in it. As most Russian & Ukrainian recipes they originate from common folk who cook with what they have on hand. The "meat" of the eggplant is not pretty at all, it's actually quite ugly and colorless. When you finish preparing Ikra, the rich colors elevate the look. It looks like you prepared an expensive condiment. It screams, "Look at me, place me on a fine cracker or petite bread." Ok, maybe not, but to me it does.
I want to show it off and present it in a more fanciful way. After you put all that effort into your Ikra, it deserves a "stage," a pretty serving platter and guests to enjoy it. When you taste it, just pause to enjoy the deep flavors that sing in your mouth. Call me crazy, but that's how rich I think eggplant caviar tastes. Right up there with Beluga. Wink.
If you want to get really fancy, I just discovered these great little French toasts at the store when I was making this Ikra and it goes beautifully with this spread. They practically dissolve in your mouth when you bite into them. They're so good!! Also, As I mentioned above, Ikra is also great on little Pumpernickel toasts. A French baguette sliced up goes great as well.
Ikra Main Ingredients
- Eggplants- Eggplants are the star of the dish here. Eggplants are meaty and flavorful. In Ikra, after roasting the eggplants, you just want to make sure you drain out the liquid really well as the liquid in the eggplant is a bit bitter and we want more sweetness than bitterness in Ikra.
- Sweet Peppers- Some Ikra recipes do not call for sweet peppers, but my family's recipes has always included them. The peppers give this recipe a nice subtle sweetness and complexity in flavor. After roasting and sweating them out, you need to peel them, then chop it up.
- Sweet Onion- The onions are sautéed in olive oil, low and slow while you are roasting the vegetables. The slow and low cook while stirring often caramelizes the onion giving it a sweet flavor for your Ikra.
- Garlic- Garlic is very important in the recipe. We love garlic and it's what gives this spread a little edge, a little bite that will excite your palate. My Babushka & Mom put raw garlic in it sometimes, but it's a bit harsh for some palates, so I just give the garlic a really quick, 30 second to 1 min cook at the end of cooking my onions. I suggest 4-5 large garlic cloves, pressed.
- Olive Oil- As my Babushka always said, use only your best Olive Oil for Ikra. Afterall, it is called, "caviar." I use a cold pressed extra virgin olive or any other Organic Italian olive oil for this recipe.
- Apple Cider Vinegar or Lemon Juice- Either of these will work great to give you the acidity needed to balance out this delicious condiment. You can use about 1-2 Tablespoons to taste.
- Ketchup- Yes, I know it sounds wild, but it's true. Both my Mom & Babushka always added ketchup to taste as a last step and it's great that way! I always try to use ketchup without HFCS though and organic, but that's just my preference.