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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Icon: Eggplant Caviar

Those of us who have seen the Soviet comedy film "Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession" remember the scene where Ivan the Terrible shows his guests to a table barely standing under the weight of fancy dishes.

"Red caviar, black caviar," the servants point matter-of-factly to mountains of both, and then with reverence to a tiny plop of something brown (pictured) -- "Exotic eggplant caviar from foreign lands!"

That scene, set in the 16th century, could be historically true, as eggplant was a rarity available to few Russians other than royals until about the 18th century.

The Russian word for eggplant, baklazhan, comes from the Turkish language, but in southern Russia eggplants are called sinenkiye or "little blue ones." In one Soviet joke, a customer asks a store employee, "How much are sinenkiye?" to which the reply is, "Those are chickens."

The culinary delight displayed by Ivan the Terrible over this pureed eggplant dish could only serve as comic relief in Soviet times, of course. The product had filled pantry shelves since the 1930s, unlike real caviar, which was hardly ever available. There was a hierarchy of different eggplant caviars: the Soviet type was typically bland and had an unappetizing tint. The color and consistency (dubbed "the color of a child's surprise") would serve as working material for foul pranks among generations of students.

To eat the Soviet-produced variety, people would typically remove the darkened top layer and cook the can's contents with onions, then add the mixture to mashed potatoes for an everyday meal. One step up from that were cans from Bulgaria, which had some spices. That was good enough to spread with butter on open sandwiches.

The peak of eggplant goodness was the Hungarian canned eggplant ragout called "imam bayaldy" -- it was extremely rare and rationed out as part of labor union New Year's produce orders.