It’s difficult to not become slightly enamored with the eggplant when you peruse Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks. His eggplant is a crowning piece, resplendent and as he coins it, “mighty.” This is a sensuous, regal eggplant, proudly dressed in a purple casing. Smooth and glossy with firm skin and a spongy, creamy interior, its shape reminds me of womanly curves. When I think of eggplants, though, three images come to mind: ratatouille, the decadent eggplant chunks hidden in the falafel and shawarma from L’As du Falafel, and the Japanese ginger soy sauce dish my mother always prepares. The eggplant is my favorite component of a ratatouille. At L’As du Falafel it is deep fried and swelling with oil and spices: the pieces melt in your mouth like the best jamon iberico. My mother sautés eggplant with copious amounts of fresh ginger for a spicy finish, and serves the dish in a delicate porcelain bowl.
I recommend soaking eggplant pieces in cold water for ten minutes to remove the bitter flavors. Soaking it in salted water also prevents oxidization (I do the same with cut apples), or if you like you can sprinkle salt on the slices of eggplant, wait a half hour or so, squeeze some of the liquid out, and rinse. I’ve had a few bad days with the eggplant, when its deceptive skin hides a browned interior. You’ve probably mostly seen large emu-egg shaped eggplants, though they do vary in color and size. Their coloration ranges from white and light violet to darker purple shades. There are the small round eggplants, the medium-sized Italian kind, or the Japanese, which are narrow and slender.
A little while back I hosted a dinner of stuffed eggplant with lamb, an elaborate and superb dish from the Jerusalem cookbook. Yesterday I cooked a simple Japanese dish from Everyday Harumi, a favorite of mine when it comes to Japanese cuisine. Either way, the eggplant is delightful in its ability to adapt to different cuisines. Whether sautéed in coconut milk for a Thai curry, drenched in mirin and shoyu, drizzled with olive oil, or mashed into a smoky sauce, the eggplant adapts to all, and pleases all. A fruit by definition, the fat purple egg thrives in warmer weather and requires gentle handling.
Eggplant in Spicy Sauce
Adapted from Everyday Harumi
This dish is a crowd-pleaser and it’s the perfect side dish to serve at a meal if you’re hosting friends. It’s simple to make and impossible to fail. The secret here is the combination of a few staple Japanese ingredients, and when mixed together these form a surprisingly flavorful and light sauce.
Two Japanese eggplants
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup mirin
1 ½ tablespoons sugar
¼ cup rice vinegar
Sunflower oil for deep-frying
1 generous teaspoon very finely minced fresh ginger (or grated ginger, if you prefer)
1 red chile, seeds removed and finely sliced
1 leek, a few tablespoons finely chopped, the rest thinly shredded to garnish
Using a peeler, peel some strips of skin from the eggplant, leaving about half of it unpeeled. It should look like an evenly peeled/unpeeled “striped” eggplant. Cut the eggplant lengthwise in half and then into thick slices. Place the eggplant pieces in a large bowl of cold water, and let soak for ten minutes. Drain and pat dry.
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and rice vinegar, Stir and make sure the sugar has dissolved. Set aside.
In a wok or a deep skillet, heat enough oil to cover the eggplant. When hot, fry the eggplant in two batches. Once cooked (the eggplant will the soft and begin to turn golden) transfer to a large plate lined with paper towels. You want to soak the residue oil on the paper towels.
Add two tablespoons of leeks, the ginger, and chile to the sauce. Stir, and then add the eggplant, and mix gently.
Serve warm or at room temperature with the shredded leek on top.
I served this eggplant dish with homemade salmon teriyaki and brown rice.