So, if you are vegetarian, chances are Thai eggplant or some permutation of tofu and vegetable stir fry is your usual meal of choice when going out for Thai. Surprisingly enough, Thai eggplant is a dish of relatively minimal effort to make at home, yet it is so thoroughly impressive that it is sure to leave your guests tongue-thaid as they marvel at your culinary prowess [my puns get better, I promise].As you set out on the seemingly very daunting task of making Thai food at home, you are probably imagining it will be something very akin to this experience and, even worse, *gasp* require a trip to that mythical yet thoroughly dreaded place known as the suburbs to procure exotic ingredients you will only use once. Fret not--I would be far too remiss in my role as "pragmatic food blogger" if I recommended you purchase anything that cannot be used in a variety of dishes. For example, did you know that you could use fish sauce essentially as salt in mac and cheese? No, seriously. The cool part about any Asian cooking, especially Indian or Thai, is that there is a roster of staple spices/flavorings that will show up in some combination in most dishes. So any time you purchase ingredients, you can reuse them and, hopefully, that will encourage you to keep trying different things beyond that one time when you were trying to impress that one girl but stumbled 'cause your idea of cooking Indian was sprinkling curry powder on everything. The other part about making that "dreaded trip to the burbs" is that you are not just going to a store to buy "weird stuff." You are getting an edumacation. Sure, you could get Japanese eggplants in Giant or Whole Bucks, but how predictable and DC centric is that!? Why not check out an H Mart, where you can at the very least procure things you had no idea could be shrimp-flavored!
OK, on to the recipe. As any self-respecting foodie, I first try to consult some venerated source of cooking lore, examine their recipe, and then completely ignore it [whatever, Martha!]. No...more like I look at the general technique and then adapt it/overhaul it/pragmatize it/what have you. So, for this one, I consulted Simply Thai Cooking. While their recipe appeared "legit," it required a whooping cup of vegetable oil and deep-frying the eggplants. I don't know about you, but my stomach would murder me if I tried to pull that stunt on it. BYT readers don't stay in yoga shape by guzzling oil, thank you.
So, I modified and came up with adjustments, including my invention of *steaming* the eggplant [hey, coming up with all this takes a lot of hard work and a lot of eating of semi-messed-up things...I grew up during communism so we do not believe in throwing away food, comrade!]. It also called for far too little red pepper and making a sauce using sugar and cornstarch. While that is all fine and great, in my modification, you don't even have to use cornstarch and do any sauce thickening. Although if you do not want to do that, that too is not terribly difficult.Before you get started, get yourself properly amped with some Thai hip hop.
- 1/2 onion
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1-3 red chillies (including seeds), depending on how spicy you like it or 2 T sambal oelek chili sauce which adds a depth of flavor
- 2 Japanese eggplants [chopped into slices about an inch thick]
- 1 red bell pepper
- 1/4 cup water
- 2-3 Tbsp. oil
- roughly 15 fresh basil leaves
- 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
- 1 Tbsp. fish sauce [for vegans, omit the fish sauce altogether]
- Heat a wok or a large frying pan with *no oil* in it to the point where when you drop a drop of water in it, it sizzles. Then add about 1-2T of oil with a high smoking point [regular vegetable oil or grape seed but no olive oil] and add the chopped eggplant. Btw, here's a little tutorial on the key to frying anything in a wok, including the very simple but often botched principle of cooking everything according to its cooking time, i.e. do not put something that cooks in a second first! Newbie move right there. No one likes broccoli mush, I assure. Not even cafeteria ladies!
- Stir fry the eggplant for about 1-2 mins. until it is browned. Then add 1/4C water to the wok/pan and cover it with a tight-fitting lid. This is the cool part I told you about earlier, where you avoid deep frying and instead *steam* the eggplant.
- Visually determine when the eggplant is cooked through--it will be soft. Remove from the pan and set it aside on a plate.
- Add a little oil to the still hot pan and stir-fry the onions first. At this high heat, it should only take about a couple of minutes. Then add the red pepper strips and stir fry those. Finally add the garlic cloves and stir fry that [burned garlic is an acquired taste for some people so do not let it burn].
- Add the soy sauce and fish sauce, stir-frying for a couple of more minutes. This is also a good part to add the sambal oelek sauce, which can be either store-bought or home-made. Note that if you are using both chillies and sambal, you may want to monitor the heatage level :) I prefer using a mix of chillies and sambal as sambal, due to having lemongrass/ginger/lime in it adds a unique flavor.
- Add the cooked eggplant to the pan and half the basil leaves. Cook until the mixture is all heated through/incorporated.
Do not overcook--should be less than a minute.
- Slide onto a serving plate and sprinkle the rest of the basil over top. Serve with brown rice.