Hünkar Beğendi or Sultan’s Delight, is an old Turkish recipe going back a few hundred years. There are a number of stories that explain the beginnings of this magnificently named Ottoman dish, one of them includes Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III who was apparently visiting in the 19th century. Whether the dish was created for a 17th, 18th or 19th century sultan, suffice it to say, said sultan was so ecstatic over it, they personified his euphoria in the name!
And how can you blame him? The contrast between the meltingly tender lamb, cooked in a simple but richly flavoured stew, and the smoky aubergine cheese sauce is simply exquisite! In fact, every time I make this, I swoon over the hot aubergine cheese sauce and it is a real battle not to keep dipping a spoon in for just another taste as I serve it up!
I’ve been to Turkey a handful of times and always make certain that I seek out this Sultan’s Delight. Over the years, it has come in many guises: a very red tomato based stew, meatballs over the beğendi and a couple of times, even with chicken, which isn’t uncommon.
Cooking Hünkar Beğendi at Home
Hünkar Beğendi is a very easy recipe to put together. There are 2 parts to the recipe: the lamb stew and the beğendi, the smoky aubergine cheese sauce.
The Lamb Stew
You can make the lamb stew well ahead of time, even the day before and reheat before serving. The lamb stew is so delicious that it can be a standalone dish served the way you would your usual stew: mashed potatoes, bread and dumplings. I have made a couple of changes/additions to the recipe I learnt in Turkey. Instead of plain old tomato purée, I use sundried tomato paste, and I also add some mild chilli powder. Mild, because the stew isn’t spicy and we don’t want to upset that balance, but I can just imagine how good it would be spicy! Both these ingredients lend an amazing depth of flavour to the stew.
The Aubergine (Eggplants)
Even the beğendi can be made ahead and reheated. In fact, the aubergines need to be cooked first and left to cool, this step certainly wants to be made early on. Just like in Baba Ghanoush, a smoky flavour is rather essential to this recipe. To achieve that, we roast the aubergines on an open flame until the skin is charred and virtually black. I do it on my gas cooker. If you don’t have a gas cooker, place them under a medium-hot grill (broiler) and grill for about 1 hour, turning them to blacken all around.
In speaking to people in Turkey about Hünkar Beğendi, I’ve noticed that there is one grey area: the use of oregano and thyme. The herb used is described as “kekik” and refers to both these herbs. Some people add them both, some people add just one or the other. I prefer to use just oregano in mine, because I think that too much and certainly the stronger thyme can overpower the subtlety of the stew. But to each his own, and feel free to use a combination and decide for yourself. Just add 1 tsp of dried thyme along with the oregano.
As mentioned, you can make this ahead of time. Just cover with cling film, letting the film touch the surface of the sauce and refrigerate. When ready to serve, reheat on the stovetop on medium-low heat, adding a little milk to lighten.
Semi skimmed milk can also be used for the Beğendi, if that’s something that interests you.
In Turkey, they use the local cheese tulum or kashkaval. Tulum is white and is made using goat’s milk and has a sharp flavour. These days though it is fairly common to find tulum made with cow’s milk or a combination of both. Kaskaval tends to be more yellow in colour and is made with either cow’s or sheep’s milk or a combination. It is also found in the Mediterranean and resembles cheddar quite closely. While I can probably get my hands on both if I go online, I just go ahead and use a combination of parmesan and cheddar to get the flavour I associate with the aubergine cheese sauce.
How to Serve Hünkar Beğendi
I always serve Hünkar Beğendi with bread; to me, that’s the best way to soak up that lovely smoky aubergine cheese sauce and of course, the stew. All manner of flatbreads go well with this, as does the good old French baguette and ciabatta. My kids always ask for garlic bread when we make this.
Shall we get cooking?