Today I got to the earliest post in my inbox. I'm a little embarrassed to say that it is actually from 2008. Here's the question, from the inimitable Benji Lovitt:
Balashon,Question: this one I'm dying to figure out. Only a few years ago did I realize that "babaganush" was not Hebrew or even an Israeli name. Americans think it's Israeli, Israelis have no idea what we're talking about. What in the hell is this word and where did it come from?
Any ideas? : )
It's important to note that none of the other questions in the queue were anywhere near that old. I think I must have kept it there because I didn't have an answer then that had a connection to Hebrew etymology.
Well, now I do.
To answer the first question, it's true that baba ghanoush isn't a Hebrew word (or technically a Hebrew phrase). It comes from Arabic, and it refers to an eggplant salad that is similar, but not identical with the common eggplant salad found in Israel. Here's how the baba ghanoush Wikipedia entry describes the two:
Baba ghanoush, also spelled baba ganoush or baba ghanouj,is a Levantine appetizer of mashed cooked eggplant mixed with tahini (made from sesame seeds), olive oil, possibly lemon juice, and various seasonings. [...] The traditional preparation method is for the eggplant to be baked or broiled over an open flame before peeling [...] In Israel, it is also known as salat ḥatzilim. Unlike baba ghanoush [however], it is made with fried or grilled eggplants mixed with mayonnaise, salt, lemon and chopped fried onions.
So Americans - likely ones who've visited Israel - conflate the baba ghanoush they find in their supermarkets with the salat chatzilim סלט חצילים they tasted here. That is the source of the confusion (and the fact that the Israeli brand Sabra calls their eggplant spread in English "babaganoush" doesn't help either.)
Now what about the second question - where does the word come from?
There are a number of theories out there. Most agree that the word baba means "father" and ghanoush means something like "pampered" or "flirtatious." This leads to the following suggested etymologies:
- This site quotes the Oxford English Dictionary as saying that it was named “perhaps with reference to its supposed invention by a member of a royal harem" - the sultan being the "pampered daddy." Although since we're talking about a harem, it could be referring to a "flirtatious papa" or "father of coquetry" as these sites suggest.
- The Etymology Nerd gives two possibilities:
- One is similar to the previous idea, saying that it was "invented by a concubine in one of the historical sultans' harems for her master."
- Another idea references "the old folk tale about a toothless father who had to be fed premasticated food, something that no doubt looked like eggplant puree." This site has a similar theory, saying the dish was from a loving daughter to her pampered father (although she said the eggplants were mashed, not "premasticated.")
- The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food says that perhaps the "father" wasn't a person, but the eggplant itself, "which is considered the most important (big daddy) of vegetables."
So now we've discussed the origin of the phrase, but as I mentioned earlier, I waited 12 years until I found a connection to a Hebrew word. The cognate word is oneg עונג - "exquisite delight, pleasure" (as well as the practically synonymous ta'anug תענוג). Klein, discussing the root of oneg, ענג, writes that it is cognate with "Arab. ‘anija (= he was coquettish, was amorous)." The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament concurs, writing that the cognate Arabic verb means "adorn oneself, flirt" and occasionally also "pamper, be ingratiating." So to be a little closer to that Arabic origin, the spelling baba ghanouj is a little better (and it helps to remember that Arabic has a hard ayin that sounds like a "g", giving us Gaza for עזה Aza. So an accurate Hebrew spelling would be באבא ע'נוג'.)
The association of eggplants with culinary delight began in earnest during the "austerity" period at the founding of the State of Israel. Eggplants became a common meat substitute, and remained very popular even when meat became available again.
However, some prefer a vegetarian lifestyle for ideological, not economic, reasons. One of those, was Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who served as the chief rabbi of the IDF and later chief rabbi of Israel. In the 1980s, he visited Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, which is a major processed meat manufacturer and also breeds fish. I spent time on Tirat Tzvi in the early 1990s, and have the book Dmut V'Koma, by resident Efraim Yair, who describes Rabbi Goren's visit:
The truth is, that the Shabbat meal on Tirat Tzvi is quite full, with meat and fish, and other delights [as mentioned in the shabbat song, Mah Yedidut], l'hit'aneg b'ta'anugim, barburim u'slav v'dagim. לְהִתְעַנֵּג בְּתַעֲנוּגִים בַּרְבּוּרִים וּשְׂלָו וְדָגִים "to savor the delights of fowl, quail and fish" ... [But in the family of Rabbi Goren] they instead sang l'hitaneg b'ta'anugim, chatzilim v'kishuim להתענג בתענוגים חצילים וקישואים "to savor the delights of eggplant and zucchini"...
So we can see that the connection between ta'anug and baba ghanouj runs deep.
Hope this answers your question, Benji!