Fried eggplant rounds are one of the staples of Middle Eastern cooking, and appear in various guises as far apart as Morocco and Georgia. They are delicious both fresh and warm from the pan and matured in the fridge for a few days. Although relatively high in fat content, fried in olive oil they are nevertheless a healthy if not dietetic side dish. They go well with a variety of dips (of which below) and also shine as a base for more elaborate side dishes (of which also one example below).

In short, this versatile and moreish dish should not under any circumstances be looked upon as impossible to make or unduly complicated, but rather should be embraced alongside home made stock or fresh pastry as a fundamental tool in the domestic cook's box of goodies. The only thing I can find to say in its disfavour is that, like many traditional dishes, it is quite time consuming and labour intensive - but then, you get out what you put in.

Right, so after this panegyric to the humble aubergine, how do you actually make this dish with the minimum of fuss and muss? Hark and learn:

  • Firstly it is important to choose and prep your eggplant correctly. It should be firm but not hard, with a slight sponginess when squeezed, and the colour should be uniformly darkest purple - green eggplant is revolting. Cut it into slices of between .5 and 1cm (or quarter of an inch), then rub some fine salt into each round and set aside in a large bowl for at least 1 hour. You will see beads of moisture come up onto the surface of the rounds almost immediately.

  • Rinse the eggplant rounds extremely well or else they will be devilishly salty (as it is remember not to use too much if any salt in later stages). Now here's a little trick that as far a I know I've made up: lay the rounds flat side by side on a clean tea towel, then roll the towel up into a fairly tight tube and leave while you heat the oil. This goes a long way towards getting rid of the splutter when frying.

  • To reduce (but not eliminate) oil splutter on your stove top, use a shallow cooking pot rather than a frying pan. Fill it with approx. 1cm of oil (doesn't have to be your finest olive, I use cheap and nasty vegetable oil with good results) and set on a moderate heat. This will mean your oil will take longer to come up to frying heat, but be patient - on a moderate heat you are less likely to burn your eggplant and almost guaranteed not to smoke up the kitchen. I never have, anyway.

  • I never burn myself while frying things anymore, because I use the sense God gave me and wear Marigolds. I also lower the rounds into the oil, flip them and take them out with a fork. If you haven't got Marigolds and are afraid of inadvertently dipping a knuckle in the oil, use a long skewer or a barbecue fork to do this.

  • Place a single layer of eggplant in the hot oil and fry them until slightly darker than golden on both side. Unlike meat or fish the eggplant won't suffer if you flip it over several times, so feel free do do this until you get a feel for the frying time. When cooked, place the rounds on a plate covered in several layers of kitchen paper and layer them as you got along, finishing with a final layer of paper and pressing down to get as much of the oil out as possible.

That's it. You've made fried eggplant rounds. Wasn't so bad, was it? Seriously, don't grill them. Aubergine and fat were made to go together. I've sampled grilled and barbecued eggplant in all sorts of places where the chef thinks he's clever, and they are lifeless, spongy, flavourless things. Not the real deal at all.

Now, you can eat these as is in a sandwich or as part of a Middle Eastern meal, but they lend themselves to so much more with just a few simple additions:

Lebanese Tahini Eggplant Rounds:

Thin out 2 tablespoons of ready made tahini paste with the juice of 1 lemon. Finely chop a few sprigs of parsley and mix in with a little salt and pepper. Arrange the rounds on a flat plate and drench in the sauce just before serving.

Georgian Dressing:

Finely chop a goodly bunch of coriander and at least 2 cloves of garlic, then mix thoroughly with 1 cup of Greek yoghurt (the Georgians have their own curdled milk dairy product called Matzoni, but it is not available in the West as far as I can tell - though it might be worth checking a specialist Russian deli if there is one in your area). Add salt to taste, but no pepper; the predominant flavour should be the sharpness of the gralic and the freshness of the coriander. Serve this on the side as a dip or dressing for the rounds.

A North African Salad:

This is not for the faint of heart. Done properly, it is extremely strong. You'll need a bunch of coriander at least 2cm in diameter around the stalks and about a head of garlic. Chop the garlic extremely fine and the coriander coarsely. Now take a Tupperware box with a tight lid and cover the bottom with a single layer of eggplant rounds. Scatter a good pinch of garlic evenly over the rounds and then a thick layer of coriander. Repeat until done, finishing with a layer of garlic and coriander. Seal the box and let mature in the fridge for at least 24 hours. Serve this dry as part of a meze/tapas/salads/whatever you want to call it selection. Wickedly delicious, if not perhaps for a first date.