How Eggplant Caviar Became A Satirical Piece Of USSR History

Due to such factors as overfishing, caviar is notoriously expensive. But there is a more affordable variety of caviar for those who can't afford to spend thousands on fish eggs. The best part, perhaps, is that anyone with a backyard garden can grow the key ingredient.

Eggplant caviar is a paste or dip made from the vegetable, and it debuted to a level of infamy as a cheap alternative to caviar in the depressed Soviet Union of the 1960s. While Soviets were initially somewhat dismayed by the introduction of this faux-luxury item in their grocery stores, however, the spread would eventually become a beloved, if somewhat satirical, Russian staple thanks to an early '70s hit movie.

Leonid Gaiday's 1973 comedy "Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession" follows a modern man named Ivan who trades places with Ivan the Terrible, crowned tsar of Russia in the 1500s. In one 16th century scene, a feast takes place featuring extravagant dishes, including an array of caviars. A servant describes the different caviars while the camera pans over them: "Black caviar, red caviar, caviar from overseas — eggplant caviar!" After the camera passes by the various fish roe, it holds on a small plate with a lackluster scoop of the aubergine paste; the punchline for modern Russians (who were known at the time to pawn unwanted eggplant caviar off on their cats) was that these 15th century characters treasured it as an exotic delicacy from a distant land.

Eggplant caviar's movie cameo made it a star

What made the joke so funny is that eggplant caviar was extraordinarily common in the USSR, and it wasn't particularly liked. But Gaiday's punchline had the unintended consequence of turning the food into something more desirable, and eggplant caviar soon was transformed into a fan favorite. Even today, decades later, it's not unusual to hear Russians lovingly refer to the dish as "overseas caviar," in reference to the movie.

Along with mass produced canned versions, there are plenty of home cooked eggplant caviar recipes. The exact technique and consistency differs depending on who you ask, but it generally involves roasting or sautéing a bunch of eggplant alongside some carrots, tomatoes, and spices before mashing everything into a paste. If you're looking for a similar, slightly fancier recipe, check out our guide to making eggplant caponata.

Eggplant caviar's journey from unwanted spread to cherished pantry staple shows just how much popular culture can influence what we eat. Whether it's convincing everyone to order a negroni sbagliato with prosecco in it, or encouraging people to try and make beignets as good as those of Princess Tiana, sometimes it just takes a little push to try something new, or (in the case of eggplant caviar) re-appraise something you've already dismissed.