Momma Anita’s Armenian Eggplant and Spiced Beef Casserole (Batlijanov Tava) (courtesy of Sarelle Hayek at:

Recipe Corner: Sarelle Plays’ Momma Anita’s Armenian Eggplant and Spiced Beef Casserole (Batlijanov Tava)


ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — “I use my food blog, Sarelle Plays, as a creative output for many of the things I enjoy, namely, good food, cooking, travel, and anything else I want to share. If you like my recipes or stories, that’s just icing on the cake,” says Sarelle Hayek. Sarelle’s parents came to the United States from Lebanon and Iraq. Her great grandparents were from Urfa, Turkey.*

“Until the age of 9, we lived in England. I went to an all-girls’ Catholic school that was about 200 years old. We had lunch in a dining hall each day and were served a three-course meal starting with soup. The food was standard English fare: lamb with peas, minced meat with pureed carrots,” she says. It was a cultural shock for Sarelle when her family moved to Orange County in 1985. She went from a private English school to a casual California public school. Instead of a dining hall, kids ate outside on picnic tables and most kids brought their own lunches.

“Back then, Orange County wasn’t the culturally and culinary diverse place that it is today. When other kids were bringing ham and cheese sandwiches to school, my mother packed lahmajoon and dolma for us.”

As a child, Sarelle says she found it embarrassing that these Armenian foods marked her as “different.” Like many Armenians, she grew up eating a variety of Middle Eastern foods at home, but says she wasn’t always proud of her food heritage as a child. At 14, she became a vegetarian. She says her mother couldn’t fathom cooking separate meatless meals every night. This propelled Sarelle to begin cooking for herself, and she remembers being surprised and encouraged when many of the recipes she made were actually edible.

Sarelle attended UCLA, majored in political science. In college, she took Mandarin language classes. After graduation, she moved to Beijing rather than return to Orange County where her family lived. Looking back, she says she doesn’t know where she found the courage to move to another country at that time. She spent seven years in China, and considers those years some of the best years of her life.

Beijing is where Sarelle first met her husband. When she arrived in China, she was still a vegetarian. However, she quickly gave up vegetarianism, as even vegetable dishes in China were often made with meat stock. When she began to eat meat again, she was introduced to a new, amazing world of food. “I found Chinese food to be incredibly delicious and varied, all the way from kebabs in Uyghur restaurants to those fiery Sichuan hot pots. I credit Chinese food for re-awakening my taste buds and developing a more discriminating palate.” (The Uyghurs are an ethnic minority group mostly living in the Xinjiang autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China. The Uyghurs are predominantly Muslims).

Sarelle and her mother, Anita Bablanian Hayek, in Newport Beach, California in 2018

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Sarelle adds, “I had a love affair with Korean food, too, since I tried it for the first time while living in Beijing in the late 1990s. Beijing has a sizable ethnically Korean population. I was mesmerized by the number of small plates brought to me before the main plates arrived. I relished the assortment of spicy fermented vegetables, fish cakes, and delicately prepared seaweed. They were quite good and suited my palate.” See:

A constant in Sarelle’s life is her curiosity about trying new foods and testing recipes. This includes collecting old cookbooks and talking to relatives and friends about almost forgotten recipes. “I’m curious about the world, and want to learn more about my heritage. This includes learning about my ancestry, the foods and recipes my relatives made in Urfa over a hundred years ago, and their history and culture. Preserving these recipes for future generations is vital. In 2019, my family went to Armenia for the first time. It was a memorable trip and exceeded my expectations so much, I can’t wait to go back again.”

Orange County is more diverse than it was years ago, she adds. No longer are dolma, gata, grape leaves or kufta considered exotic. Her refrigerator is well stocked with kimchi, miso paste, and fermented black beans alongside red pepper paste, tahini, olives, pita bread, and Armenian string cheese. “I want to continue to add more Armenian recipes to my blog, in particular those from Urfa. I want to preserve these recipes so they can be passed down to the next generation.”

“This eggplant and spiced beef casserole is one of my mother’s signature dishes. It’s an old Urfa Armenian recipe we call batlijanov tava, passed down from generation to generation. The recipe calls for seven spice mix (or baharat). Seven spice can be found in Middle Eastern markets, as well as online at Amazon or Kalustyan’s. It’s a mix of common spices such as allspice, pepper, cumin, paprika, coriander, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger, give or take a few (depending on the brand). If you can’t find seven spice mix, just use the same amount of allspice. The taste will be similar,” she adds.



Topics: Eggplant

4 medium eggplants (common globe variety)

1 lb. ground beef (85% lean)

14.5 oz. can crushed tomatoes

6 oz. can tomato paste

2 medium tomatoes, if desired

1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and diced

1 medium yellow onion, diced

1 teaspoon seven spice (or allspice)

1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or crushed red pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt and a few rounds of fresh black pepper

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups hot water lightly seasoned with salt



Make 3/4-inch diagonal slits in the eggplants. Do not slice all the way through. It should look like an accordion (see photo).

In a large bowl, mix the ground beef with the rest of the ingredients except for about a quarter of the tomato paste, the tomatoes, olive oil and water.

Stuff each eggplant slit with the meat mixture. Once you’ve stuffed an eggplant, place it in a large baking pan or Dutch oven. All four eggplants should fit snugly inside. If you have meat mixture left over, you can stuff a few tomatoes by making 1/2-inch slits, as with the eggplant. Place the tomatoes on top of the eggplant.

Combine the olive oil, salted water, and the rest of the tomato paste in a separate bowl. Pour mixture over the top of the eggplants, cover, and cook over high heat. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium. Keep covered. After 35 minutes, check the eggplant. Push down on the eggplants a bit so more of the eggplants will be immersed in liquid.

Taste for seasonings and cover again. Cook for another 30 minutes, or until the eggplants are fully cooked through and soft. Check to ensure the bottom does not burn.

Momma Anita’s Armenian Eggplant and Spiced Beef Casserole (Batlijanov Tava) (courtesy of Sarelle Hayek at:

For this recipe, go to:

For Sarelle’s Red Lentil Soup with Curry and Black Pepper, go to:

*For Beijing Street Food: Uyghur style kebabs (Yangrou Chuanr) and Tiger Salad (Laohu Cai), go to:

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