Many people dislike the eggplant’s spongy texture, but that’s what makes this fruit – yes, it is actually a berry even though it is generally thought of as a vegetable –appealing to cooks; it absorbs the flavour of other ingredients. These two recipes – one Chinese, the other Thai – show off the eggplant’s versatility.
Steamed eggplant with spicy sesame sauce
Cook the eggplant, make the sauce and mix together at least 30 minutes before you plan to serve the dish, so the flavours can blend. This recipe makes a lot but the dish keeps well in the fridge; when you want to eat the leftovers, you might need to mix in a little hot water, to thin out the sauce.
Buy Chinese or Japanese eggplants that are as thin as possible. If they are too large in diameter, you will need to cut them lengthwise into quarters, rather than halves.
When buying sesame paste and sesame oil, look at the food label: both should contain only sesame seeds. With the former, some producers often add peanuts (and/or starch); with the latter, they sometimes mix in other types of edible oils. I use the Kowloon Soy brand of sesame paste. You can also substitute tahini made from toasted sesame seeds.
500 grams Chinese or Japanese eggplants
15ml cooking oil
15ml sesame oil
1 tsp sesame seeds, plus extra for sprinkling
3 large garlic cloves
45 grams sesame paste
30ml soy sauce
15ml rice wine
15ml chilli oil
10ml Chinese brown vinegar
20 grams granulated sugar
½ tsp fine sea salt or to taste
About 25 grams spring onions, divided
Fresh coriander leaves (optional)
1 Make the sauce. Finely chop the garlic and mince the spring onions. Pour the cooking and sesame oils into a small wok or skillet and heat over a medium flame. When the oil is hot, add one teaspoon of sesame seeds and cook until golden. Mix in the garlic and cook until fragrant but not brown. Add the sesame paste and combine the ingredients, then remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the soy sauce, rice wine, chilli oil, vinegar, sugar, salt and 20 grams of minced spring onion.
2 Trim off the ends from the eggplants. Slice the eggplants in half lengthwise (or quarter them, if large) then cut them into pieces about 6cm to 8cm long. Spread the pieces in one layer over two or three heatproof dishes and steam for 10 to 15 minutes until very tender. (You will probably need to steam the eggplants in batches. I place the dish on a short-legged metal rack set over water in a wok. Bring the water to the boil then place the lid on the wok and steam. Occasionally check the water level and replenish as needed.) Dip a slice of eggplant into the sauce and taste it to check the seasoning, then correct, if needed.
3 Mix the sauce with the eggplant, leave it for about 30 minutes, to let it absorb the flavours, then place on a serving dish. Scatter some sesame seeds and the remaining spring onion on top and garnish with coriander leaves, if using.
Nam prik num
There are many types of nam prik (a chilli-based hot sauce) in Thai cuisine. Some are fiery hot and best used in tiny quantities while others are meant to be eaten as a condiment with raw and cooked vegetables and/or grilled meat or seafood. Nam prik num falls into the latter category. Serve it with small romaine lettuce leaves, long beans (cut them into shorter lengths, blanch the pieces, drain them and then tie them into small knots), sliced cucumber, raw or blanched small napa cabbage leaves and unseasoned pork cracklings.
2 large green spicy Thai chillies
400 grams Chinese or Japanese eggplants
4 garlic cloves, peeled
3-4 small shallots, peeled
30ml fresh lime juice
30ml fish sauce
5 grams sugar
½ tsp fine sea salt
Vegetables and pork cracklings, to serve
1 Lay the chillies, eggplants, garlic and shallots on a sheet of aluminium foil and place under the oven grill set to high. Cook the ingredients until softened and charred in spots, turning them as needed and removing them from the heat as they are done. Let the eggplants char more than the rest of the ingredients – the skin should be black. When the eggplants are cool enough to handle, strip off the skin – it will pull away easily.
2 Remove and discard the stem from the chillies. If you can’t take much spice, cut the chillies in half and remove the seeds and core (save them and mix in some or all to taste when you are seasoning the nam prik num). Roughly chop the chillies, eggplants, garlic and shallots then put them in a large mortar and pound to a rough paste. (This can be done in a food processor, but don’t process until smooth; it should be roughly textured.) Mix in the lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and salt. Taste for seasonings and correct, if needed. The mixture should be spicy but balanced.
3 Spoon the nam prik num into a serving bowl. Serve with the vegetables and pork crackling.