Reflections on Ratatouille

The French concoction of tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini is best at this time of year.

ratatouille with red rice
Ratatouille with a dish of red rice.

Westend61 / Getty Images

As predictable as the shorter days, cooler nights, and changing leaf colors at this time of year is the fact that a pot of ratatouille is bound to show up on my dining table. When my weekly CSA share abounds with eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers, I can't not make it – that famous French stew that does such a perfect job of showcasing late summer vegetables.

Until recently, however, I didn't realize that I've been making it wrong all along. In fact, according to an article in the BBC on the "right" way to make ratatouille, I make it so incorrectly that, if I were a restaurant owner operating in the Niçois region of France, I would not even be allowed to serve it.

In 2017 a group of culinary historians managed to get Niçois cuisine protected under UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. Recipes for dishes such as ratatouille had to be formalized to make them historically accurate. Emily Monaco wrote:

"[The official] recipe calls for individually frying aubergines, courgettes, peppers and onions before simmering the vegetables together in the tomato sauce in the oven for nearly an hour. When this and other Niçois recipes were protected by France’s culture ministry in 2019 ... the association earned the right to grant a label to those local restaurants preparing it well – and take the label away from those resorting to shortcuts."

There is also an emphasis on cutting the vegetables precisely, with some debate over whether they should be in elegant half-moons or diced in little cubes. Nevertheless, in the words of Niçoise (and Michelin-starred) chef Julia Sedefdjian, "You want them to melt, but also to be able to recognize each vegetable in the finished dish."

Thankfully, there are no limitations on my ability to make and serve inauthentic ratatouille to my own family, and so I interpret the dish as I wish, according to the day. While I do not compromise on the quality of the ingredients – ratatouille is strictly limited to the late summer season, when the ingredients are at their very best – I do change up the cooking method, and certainly never take the time to fry each vegetable individually.

One recipe I use calls for roasting the vegetables on trays in a hot oven with plenty of thyme, rosemary, and garlic cloves. The cooked vegetables get mixed together in a bowl afterward, with additional olive oil and fresh basil. Another recipe I like is low-maintenance oven-roasted ratatouille, where the diced vegetables are put into a Dutch oven and baked for an hour or more with herbs and olive oil. It fills the house with a heavenly aroma, but results in a soupier mixture.

Regardless of how I prepare it, I like to serve it over pesto-seasoned squares of polenta (am I being horrifyingly inauthentic?) with fresh crusty bread to soak up the juices. But one thing I appear to have right is that ratatouille is always the main focus of my family's meal. It is a front-and-center vegetarian main dish, never relegated to the side. Then I eat it for breakfast the following day, with a fried egg on top – a move that is surprisingly authentic. As one of the culinary historians told Monaco, "The first day you eat it hot. The second day, you eat it cold; and the third day, you toss in some eggs, and dig right in!" At least I'm doing something right.

While I understand the urge to preserve historic dishes, I sometimes fear that prioritizing "true authenticity" suggests somewhat erroneously that a dish has always existed in the same form, as if it's been frozen in time. That's not true; as a website called French Country Food points out, most of the main ingredients are not indigenous to Nice, with tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers all coming from the Americas and eggplants arriving from India in the 16th century. Up until the 1800s, ratatouille referred to 

"a watery vegetable stew served to soldiers in which 'float here and there a few scrawny ribs of veal or bad mutton.' In fact, the word for a military ration – rata – is likely linked to the word ratatouille, though which came first – rata or ratatouille – is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario." 

So, really, ratatouille has only been in its current rich and luscious form for a century or less. 

I've written articles in the past about how we need to return to simpler ways of preparing meals and use "peasant food" as the basis for how we eat. Not only are these meals easier and cheaper to prepare, but they're also highly nutritious and tend to prioritize local, seasonal ingredients. Look at the traditional, everyday dishes of any country and you'll see less meat, more grains, and an abundance of vegetables. Ratatouille is a fantastic example of this and should be made more widely by all, regardless of its elite cultural status.