“I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an eggplant.”
– Ursula K. LeGuin, Science Fiction Writer
Buenos Aires – Such slanderous words written against the eggplant! And from one of my favorite science fiction authors. And the white eggplant has engendered more than it’s share of commentary. In the 16th Century, in Northern Spain it was known as the mala insana, the apple of madness, as if some crazy she-devil conjured from the depths – interestingly, in Southern Spain, at the same time, “she” was referred to as “the apple of love”. Technically a fruit, falling into the same family as tomatoes and peppers, eggplants are native to India, but spread across the lands early on – they were recorded as being enjoyed by Chinese emperors as early as 600 B.C.
“The people of Tolledo do eat them with great deuotion being boiled with fat flesh, putting thereto some scraped cheese, which they do keepe in vineger, honie, or salt pickell all Winter to procure lust. Petrus Bellonius, and Hermolaus Barbarus, report that in Egypt and Barbary they vse to eat the fruit of Mala insana boiled or rosted vnder ashes, with oile, vineger, & pepper, as people vse to eat Mushroms. But I rather wish English men to content themselues with the meat and sauce of our owne Countrey, than with fruit and sauce eaten with such perill: for doubtlesse these apples haue a mischievuous qualitie, the vse whereof is vtterly to be forsaken…” – John Gerard, Herball or General Historie of Plantes, 1633
Hmmm… boiled with fatty meat, and topped with grated cheese that’s been soaked for the winter in vinegar and honey, or brine…all to induce lust… I may have to give that a try next winter!
White eggplants are smaller and firmer than the purple Italian eggplant, in shape often resembling the thin, light violet Japanese eggplants. The texture of the flesh is denser and creamier. They generally are packed with more seeds than the purple variety. The taste is less bitter (with the exception of the small white globe eggplants which seem to be more bitter), though it is still worth a light salting to draw out the bitterness. Some folks find the skins to be a bit tough and prefer to peel them – they definitely hold together better than purple versions, but it depends on how you’re cooking them. Since I was about to make a sauteed dish that would cook them through, I decided not to peel them.
One of my all time favorite Japanese dishes is called Piri Kara Nasu, which is eggplant in a spicy miso sauce. There are many versions of it, and I’ve tried quite a few recipes over the years, finally settling on that I particularly like. The original recipe I’d gotten calls for a bit of shredded pork sauteed into the mix, it happened last night that we had some leftover hangar steak, so I decided to shred that into the dish. Good, but I definitely prefer the pork version, the flavor is more delicate. I couldn’t begin to tell you where this particular recipe came from, and, as best I can determine piri kara simply means spicy, or spicy sauce (literally “spicy color”), so searching Japanese cookbooks or online for a piri kara sauce is likely to yield any of a zillion different versions.
Piri Kara Nasu (Eggplant in Spicy Miso Sauce)
4 Japanese or White eggplant, cut in 2″ julienne
1 pound meat – pork, beef, chicken, your choice, cut in shreds
2 tablespoons peanut oil
½ cup red miso
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1½ tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon freshly chopped or grated ginger
1-2 tablespoons water
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon sesame oil
scallions, chopped, for garnish
sesame seeds, toasted, for garnish
Lightly salt the eggplant batons to pull out a touch of the bitterness – 15 minutes in a colander will do it – then pat them dry with a paper towel. Blend all the sauce ingredients together into a smooth paste, adding just enough of the water to achieve that. Saute the eggplant in the oil over medium-high heat until lightly browned and cooked through. Add the meat and continue to saute until the meat is thoroughly cooked. Add the sauce (don’t add it all at once, you might not need all of it), tossing to make sure the eggplant and meat is nicely coated. Serve over rice. Garnish with chopped scallions and toasted sesame seeds. This is not a “spicy hot” dish – there is a touch of a kick from the cayenne, but most of the spiciness is from vinegar and ginger. Serves 4.