Japanese eggplant is an unusual farmers market find

July 8, 2022

A Sunday visit to the Nassau Valley Vineyards Farmers Market is a completely different experience than you’ll have at other produce markets across the region. Of course, each one has its own personality, and this one felt more like a street fair with an international flair. There was a booth dedicated to imported French delicacies, one offering Mexican foods and another with Japanese produce, seedlings, bottled sauces and seasonings.

We selected Japanese eggplants from this vendor, who also offered samples of his juicy cherry tomatoes. Characterized by their long, narrow shape, both Japanese and Chinese eggplants differ from the larger, chubbier globe eggplants. Japanese varieties are slightly smaller than Chinese types and have dark-purple skin, while Chinese eggplants are usually a light lavender.

Eggplants differ not only in their color and shape, but also in their taste. Globe eggplants have a slightly bitter taste, which is why many recipes instruct you to salt them prior to cooking. Japanese eggplants have a milder flavor with hints of slight sweetness and don't require pre-salting. Their skins are thinner and more tender than globe eggplants, so you also don’t have to peel them.

Eggplants have been cultivated for millennia and are believed to have originated in wild form in Asia. The English word eggplant comes from the 1700s, when a white variety that resembled a goose or duck egg was popular. You may also hear the French word “aubergine,” which refers to the dark-purple color of some varieties. Like many other foods with such a long history, eggplants have been ascribed both medicinal and culinary properties.

Eggplants are a member of the nightshade family of plants, which includes potatoes, tomatoes and peppers along with the highly poisonous belladonna. In Medieval Europe, the eggplant’s bitterness and pungency were believed to cause melancholy and angry moods that would provoke various ailments. Texts of the time note these ill effects could be reduced by special preparations that included salting and rinsing.

By the time of the Renaissance, herbalists warned of the aphrodisiacal properties of eggplant. Food historians credit the Spanish explorers with bringing eggplants to the Americas, where they were originally grown for ornamental value, rather than as a food. Today, you can find a wide variety of eggplants available from farmers markets to supermarkets. Their meaty flesh becomes tender and tasty when cooked into a variety of dishes.

The dish in the photo combines tamari, toasted sesame oil and ginger to create a rich sauce that balances the sharp garlic and hot pepper notes. For those of you unfamiliar with tamari, it is similar to soy sauce, but made without wheat. The recipe for roasted eggplant puree is adapted from the wonderful cookbook “Local Flavors” by Deborah Madison; consider serving it as an alternative to hummus. And, if you enjoy eggplant parmigiana, try making it with Japanese eggplant instead of a globe type.

Sautéed Eggplant

1 1/2 lbs Japanese eggplant
1 T olive oil
3 minced garlic cloves
2 t minced ginger
1/4 t red pepper flakes
2 T rice wine vinegar
1 T sugar
1 T cornstarch
1 t sesame oil
3 T tamari
1/4 t sel de mer
3 sliced green onions

Slice the eggplant on a diagonal into half-inch pieces; set aside. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium low; add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Add ginger and red pepper; cook for a couple of minutes. Add the eggplant and sauté until tender and slightly golden, about 5 to 6 minutes. Whisk together the vinegar, sugar, cornstarch, sesame oil and tamari in a small bowl. Pour the mixture into the skillet and toss to coat the eggplant. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens. Transfer eggplant and sauce to a serving platter; sprinkle with salt and garnish with green onion. Serve hot or at room temperature. Yield: 4 servings.

Roasted Eggplant Purée*

1 lb Japanese eggplant
olive oil
1/3 C pine nuts
1 peeled garlic clove
1/2 t salt
2 T chopped parsley
2 T chopped basil
1 t lemon juice
salt & pepper, to taste

Preheat the broiler. Slice the eggplant into half-inch rounds. Lightly brush both sides of each piece with olive oil and arrange on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer. Place the pan 6 inches from the heat and cook until golden, about 10 minutes. Turn over the pieces and brown the other side. Place the pine nuts in a dry skillet and toast over medium heat until golden. Grind the pine nuts, garlic and salt in a mortar to form a paste. Place the cooked eggplant in the bowl of a food processor along with the nut mixture and pulse into a rough paste. Add herbs and lemon juice; pulse to combine. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper, to taste. Serve on crackers or slices of toasted baguette. Yield: 1 cup. *Adapted from “Local Flavors” by Deborah Madison


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