Sultan’s delight (Hunkar begendi) is an Ottaman dish that consists of a lamb stew served over an eggplant-bechamel sauce. The resulting dish is indeed fit for royalty and wonderfully comforting.
Everyday vs high society cuisine
In a number of countries you find a kind of two-tier system in the traditional cuisine – the foods that everyday people would eat and those eaten by royalty and those in high society.
This is particularly true where there was a royal family or other ruling class.
Naturally, there tends to be a difference in the ingredients.
What would have been considered peasant foods typically include less meat or use what would have been considered “less desirable” cuts. Some dishes are creative ways to use up leftovers or stretch meat into more meals.
The royal cuisine, on the other hand, highlights finer cuts of meat and often uses a long list of ingredients, including expensive spices.
While both styles can take a while to cook, peasant meals typically involved long cooking to tenderize the meat, but the actual preparation is shorter.
High society meals, meanwhile, may include elaborate preparations with many steps.
Both can be equally delicious.
Where did Sultan’s Delight originate?
This traditional Turkish dish is an interesting combination of the two.
It is said to have been prepared for a Sultan during the Ottoman empire who liked it so much the name means “The Sultan is delighted/pleased”, often translated as “Sultan’s Delight”.
The exact origins of the dish are unclear and you’ll find a number of different stories about when it was first served then became popular.
One popular example is that it was served for Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, during a visit to the Sultan at the time. But, the general theme is that the Sultan himself loved it, and hence the name was given.
Preparing the lamb stew for Hunkar begendi
You generally make this dish with a leg of lamb, which would have been a more expensive cut. While there is a bit more preparation, given that you serve it over a bechamel sauce enriched with eggplant, the lamb stew itself is not overly complex, and there aren’t too many ingredients.
One of the other nice things about this dish is that you can prepare the lamb stew part ahead of time, as it reheats really well.
In fact, you can prepare all of it ahead, the eggplant sauce just needs a little more care in storing and re-heating.
Eggplant in Mediterranean cooking
Lamb and eggplants are popular ingredients across the Mediterranean region as they are both widely available.
Both can be prepared in many different ways and also pair very well together. (You also find them combined in Greek moussaka.)
Eggplant can be under-used in the US, but you’ll find many delicious ways to prepare it around the Mediterranean.
It really is versatile once you get into using it more.
You can blend it up for dips, make it into a side dish, or dress it up to make a main either with meats or as the star itself.
Some Mediterranean ideas to use it include Moroccan eggplant with chermoula and zaalouk (a salad/dip), roasted eggplant with tahini and baba ghanoush from the Levantine region, and parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmesan) and pasta alla Norma from Italy.
There are also a number of other Turkish dishes that make use of the vegetable.
You’ll also find a number of eggplant dishes in Japanese and Indian cuisine, though these tend to use different, local, varieties of the vegetable.
Preparing eggplant for this dish
Some reasons that people may not like eggplant tend to include that the skin can be a little tough or bitter or that it can absorb a lot of oil as it cooks. Others don’t like the texture.
This dish, however, is a great way to enjoy the best of the flavor without these issues.
You don’t cook the eggplant in oil, you don’t eat the skin, and the eggplant puree is combined with a smooth cheese sauce so the texture is more hidden.
You can vary how hidden the texture is to taste.
If you prefer, you can simply mash the eggplant so that is has a little more texture to it.
Alternately, you can blend it smooth and strain the seeds out, if you have time, for a completely silky smooth sauce.
If possible, cook the eggplant over an open flame either on the grill or by resting over a gas burning stove.
If these aren’t an option, you can also roast in the oven. But, using a flame will help give a nice smokey flavor.
Also of note is that it is worth taking a little time to drain off some of the juices that come out of the flesh as it cooks, as they can be bitter.
Preparing the lamb stew and eggplant ahead
The lamb stew part of this dish is ideal to make ahead and re-heat when you need it. You can either refrigerate a few hours, for a day or two, or freeze it if making further ahead.
You can also grill or roast the eggplant for the sauce ahead of time, but only do so at most the day before.
It is really better to leave the cooked eggplant whole until nearer when you use it, since the puree tends to discolor. Although, you can reduce this by adding a little lemon juice. The discoloration will also be less obvious once you mix the eggplant into the sauce.
It is possible to make the entire eggplant-béchamel sauce ahead of time as well, but if you do, be sure to cover it with cling wrap/film directly touching the surface of the sauce, to keep it from developing a ‘skin’ on top. Then, remove this wrap before gently re-heating and serving. If making ahead, you may need to add a little more milk to thin the mixture slightly.
Serving hunkar begendi
To serve, you can either spread the eggplant sauce base over a serving platter and top with the stew or prepare each plate with some sauce at the bottom and stew on top.
This dish is best served with bread to mop up all the wonderful flavors.
Sultan’s delight, hunkar begendi, might be unusual in that it combines a tender lamb stew in a gently herby tomato sauce with the smooth, rich eggplant-bechamel sauce below.
But, both are delicious and even better together, so it’s easy to see why this dish was seen as fit for the Sultan.
It’s a special dish that’s definitely worth trying.
1 hour 30 minutes
1 hour 45 minutes
For the lamb stew
- 1 1/2 lbs lamb (from the leg), diced into roughly bite-sized pieces
- 1/4 tsp salt (approx)
- 1/4 tsp pepper (approx)
- 1 large onion (or 2 medium)
- 1/2 green pepper (or 1 whole, if small)
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 2 cups chopped tomatoes (recommend chopped fresh tomatoes, around 3, or if using canned, use crushed or finely chopped)
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste
- 1 cup light stock or water
For the eggplant-bechamel
- 3 lbs eggplant (approx 3 med-large)
- 3 Tbsp butter
- 3 Tbsp flour
- 1 1/4 cups milk (approx, warmed)
- 1 1/2 oz grated Parmesan, cheddar, or a blend of both
- Season the pieces of lamb with salt and pepper. Dice the onion relatively finely and dice the pepper. Finely chop the garlic.
- Warm the oil in a Dutch oven or large pot over a medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook for around 5 minutes until softened and translucent. Add the lamb chunks and brown on all sides. Then add the green pepper and garlic. Stir and cook for a couple more minutes.
- Add the tomatoes, thyme, oregano and tomato paste to the pot. Stir to mix through and cook a minute. Then add the stock/water. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover with a lid, then reduce the heat so that the sauce is gently simmering. Leave to cook for around 1 hour, so that the lamb is tender. (You may want to have the lid only half-on for part of this time to help the liquid reduce a little.)
- Meanwhile, cook the eggplant. If possible, cook the eggplant on a grill/BBQ or over a gas burner. (You may want to cover around the burner with foil to catch any drips.) Alternatively, preheat the oven to 430F, prick the eggplant all over with a knife, and place it on a baking sheet or in a baking dish. Roast for around 40 minutes. In all cases, you are looking for the inside of the eggplant to become very soft, and if over grill/flame, the skin should be well-charred. Once cooked, leave the eggplant to cool so it is safe to handle and open.
- Once cooled, cut open the eggplant skin and scoop out the flesh. Either roughly chop and mash the flesh for a coarser texture, or blend it up for a smoother paste. In both cases, once chopped, try to drain off as much liquid as you can from the flesh as this can make it sour. If you want a really smooth puree, you can press the mixture through a fine strainer to remove the seeds.
- Make the bechamel: Melt the butter in a medium-small saucepan over a medium heat. Once melted, add the flour. Stir as it cooks for a couple minutes and becomes gently nutty smelling.
- Gradually add the milk and stir or whisk after each addition to make a smooth paste. Cook a minute or two more, as needed, to thicken slightly.
- Remove the sauce from the heat, then add the cheese and stir through so that the cheese mixes in and melts. Add the eggplant puree and stir to mix evenly through. Season with a little salt and pepper to taste.
- To serve, either spread some of the eggplant sauce over the bottom of individual plates or all of it on the bottom of a serving platter. In both cases, spread it out so it creates a bit of a bowl in the middle to hold the stew. Add the lamb stew in the middle of the eggplant sauce and serve with bread on the side.
For notes on preparing this dish ahead of time, see the article.
1/6 of recipe
Amount Per Serving:
Caroline lived and traveled various places before settling in Cambridge, MA. She still fits in some travel with her family, but often settles for traveling through food instead. She shares her recipes at CarolinesCooking.com, where there’s plenty of international inspiration using seasonal ingredients, as well as creative recipes for all to enjoy. Caroline is originally from Scotland, where she grew up hiking and skiing, both things she still loves to do when her two young boys give her a chance. You can follow along with her cooking adventures on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.