Ratatouille, a vegetable-based dish, is widely known for its simple, homey taste. There is no set recipe--only basic guidelines--so there are many different adaptations. It is probably the most famous for its feature in the animated Pixar film “Ratatouille”. However, the film only shows a small fraction of the dish’s rich background and history.
The name “ratatouille” comes from the Occitan “rataolha.” It is also commonly known as “ratatouille niçoise,” which pays homage to Nice, where the dish is thought to have originated from. Historians differ on the exact origins, as it could be a Catalonian or a Basque dish that made its way to Southern France, Northern Spain, and the Balearic Islands. It could’ve also been pre-Roman; however, it would’ve been made with other ingredients, as tomatoes and zucchinis were introduced to Europe from America during the 1500s. In essence, it is mostly associated with the Provençal region of France. The “rata” means, in military slang, a mixture of beans, potatoes, vegetables, and fatty meat. It is also known as a combination of 2 French words: “ratouiller” and “tatouiller,” which are descriptive verbs meaning “to stir up.” First thought of as a “poor peasant’s meal,” it was often made by farmers who worked in the fields.
So when exactly was this dish created? It is assumed that ratatouille was created before the 16th century because that is when most of the vegetables in this dish were introduced to Europe. Eggplants originated from India, near Assam and Burma, where their names were mentioned in ancient Sanskrit, Bengali, and Hindustani, confirming their antiquity. The numerous Arabic and North African names, in addition to the lack of ancient Greek and Roman names, suggests that it was carried into the Mediterranean area by the Arabs during the Dark Ages (500-1500 A.D.). The tomato’s origin can be traced all the way back to the Aztecs around 700 A.D. The Europeans were first introduced to this fruit when the early explorers brought it back during the 16th century. Although this fruit was widely welcomed throughout southern Europe, resistance was more apparent as it went north. Europeans thought it was poisonous due to the way plates were made during the 1500s. Rich nobles at the time used plates made of pewter, which has a high lead content. Foods high in acid, like tomatoes, would’ve caused the lead to leach out into the food, causing lead poisoning and even death. This didn’t affect poor peasants however, as they used wooden plates--hence the reason why ratatouille is considered a peasant’s food.
Ratatouille is usually made with eggplants, onions, zucchinis, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, and herbs, but many tend to use whatever vegetables they have at hand, as these ingredients can easily be substituted for another. In the animated film, the vegetables are thinly sliced and baked with sauce on the bottom. But in many other recipes, the vegetables are cut into chunks into a stew-like dish. It is usually served as a side dish, but it can be a main dish if accompanied by rice or bread. In France, it is common to pair it with fish (like tuna) or a quiche.
There are two methods for cooking this dish: cooking all the vegetables together or cooking them separately. French chefs Roger Vergé and Gui Gedda advocate for the Provençal traditional way of frying the vegetables one by one to maintain its original flavor. But it is more convenient to cook the vegetables all at once.
This versatile dish can be seen in many different versions in many cultures, especially in the countries near the Mediterranean. There is a Catalan dish called the samfaina (smaller pieces, thicker stew) and the Maltese language version with capers and olives. The Italian caponata is a more eggplant based stew with capers and olives. The Spanish pisto is served with a fried egg on top. The Bulgarian and Romanian ghiveci is cooked with carrots and cabbages instead. All of these dishes are tweaked in their own unique way based on the culture and location they originated from.
Here is a simple recipe that anyone can follow:
- Pepper & Salt
- Olive Oil
- Bouquet garni(1)
Wash the vegetables and slice the zucchini, onions, and eggplant.
Dice the remaining vegetables.
Oil the pan and fry each vegetable individually(except for the tomato and garlic).
Put all the vegetables together with the bouquet garni.
Simmer for 45 minutes and season to taste.
When I tried recreating this dish, I followed a recipe that replicated the dish from the movie, “Ratatouille”. Contrary to the recipe provided above, this method took a lot more time and effort. The vegetables had to each be sliced thinly and arranged in a spiral pattern. The preparation took forever and the sauce had to be created separately as well. The cooking time in the oven also took around 90 minutes. It was a pain to make. And personally, I do not think there would be much of a difference in the taste between the two recipes. Regardless of the method, this dish will end up tasting like stewed vegetables.
(This is what the recipe provided would look like)
(Above is my reaction of this dish)