Weeknight Eggplant Curry

Last night was girls' night - just me and my pal Danielle. It would have been easy to pick a place and go out for margaritas, which we've done in the past, but instead we stayed in and cooked together.

Lately, I've been keen to come up with new ways to prepare eggplant, particularly those slender violet Japanese varieties that are pretty enough for a centerpiece. I had purchased a bunch on Sunday, which meant using them pronto. Eggplant is less refrigerator-resilient than meets the eye, and I've learned the hard way to keep the procrastinating to a minimum.

Japanese eggplants make wonderful curry.(Kim O'Donnel)

My eggplant repertoire is reliable albeit limited - there was the smoky baba ghanouj, a grilled salad with roasted peppers and feta and a moron-proof roasted eggplant number with Chinese black bean-garlic sauce, all wonderful and worthy of repeat experiences.

But for this occasion, I wanted something new, an eggplant departure, if you will, and a dish that would inspire my mostly meatless friend who also likes to bang around in the kitchen. Curry came to mind, and I immediately went to "Cradle of Flavor" by James Oseland, a top-notch, well-researched title on the cuisines of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Sure enough, there was a recipe for eggplant curry.

In his notes, Oseland mentions that this dish is commonly found in Malaysian homes, which I interpret as easy enough to put together during the week. The one caveat: the ingredients, all Asian pantry basics, which may not appear in every Western kitchen, a problem easily solved with a visit to an Asian grocery. With everything on hand, the dish is fairly easy to put together, and easier to do as a team. While one person fries the turmeric-infused eggplant, the other person can prepare the spice mixture and additional curry components.

While the curry simmers, you can put a pot of rice on, a brief reprieve for a few sips of wine. While Danielle chopped up a pineapple, which worked as a beautiful foil to the spicy sauce, I chopped a handful of cilantro for garnish.

This is a beautiful dish, a balance of sweet, heat, pungent and fat that's a cornerstone of southeast Asian cookery. While some flavors pop on the tongue, others linger and mellow, a combination that makes this dish exotic yet comforting.

Go on; grab a friend and curry up some eggplant. It will make the middle of the week feel a little extra special.

Join me today at noon for this week's What's Cooking.

Asiah's Eggplant Curry
Adapted from "Cradle of Flavor" by James Oseland


1 pound (about 4) Japanese eggplants, unpeeled, stemmed, halved lengthwise and cut crosswise into pieces about 2-3 inches long
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon tamarind pulp, plus 3 tablespoons very warm water to make extract
Peanut oil for frying
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced lengthwise
3 shallots (about 2 1/2 ounces total), peeled and thinly sliced lengthwise
1-5 fresh green Thai chiles, stemmed, and halved lengthwise (I also seeded the chiles and used about 3, which yielded a spicy result)
2 teaspoons coriander seeds, finely ground (KOD note: I didn't have seeded on hand, so I used ground coriander)
1/2 teaspoon chile powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 piece cinnamon stick, 3 inches
3/4 cup (about 4 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk (don't forget to shake the can before opening!)
3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Place eggplant pieces in a large bowl and dust turmeric on top. With your hands, massage turmeric into eggplant until it even coats the fleshy side of each piece. Set aside.

Place tamarind pulp in a small bowl and mix with warm water. Let pulp soften, 10-15 minutes. Squeeze and massage softened pulp through your fingers, loosening fruit's pulp from sinew and seeds. With your fingers, remove all sold pieces and discard. You will have a caramel-colored extract.

Pour oil to a depth of 1 inch into a 3-quart sauce pan (I used a wok) and place over medium to medium-high heat until hot but not smoking - about 365 degrees. You can test it by spearing a piece of eggplant onto a fork, dipping edge into hot oil. If it begins to fry and a froth of oil immediately bubbles around it, oil is ready.

Fry eggplant in batches of no more than 3 pieces at a time (KOD note: In a wider wok you could probably get away with 10 pieces) until fleshy side of each piece just begins to turn golden, about 90 seconds. Eggplant should be just cooked and not at all soft or mushy. Using a slotted spoon, transfer eggplant to paper towels to drain.

Turn off heat. Let oil cool for a few minutes, then pour off all but about 2 tablespoons (KOD note: Very important step; otherwise, you will have a very oily curry.)

Reheat pan, this time over medium-low heat. Add garlic and shallots and cook until they turn limp and translucent, about 2 minutes. Do not let them turn brown.

Add chiles and all ground spices. Saute, stirring gently to prevent from scorching, about 3 minutes.

Add coconut milk and water, stir to combine and increase heat to medium. Bring coconut milk to a lively simmer and reduce heat so that mixture stays at a gentle simmer. Stir in tamarind, sugar and salt; continue to simmer about 15 minutes.

Add eggplant and cook until it is fork-tender, about 1-2 minutes. Do not let it overcook and fall apart. Taste for salt and add as necessary.

Transfer to a bowl and serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

Oseland suggests serving with steamed rice.

Danielle and I garnished it with chopped fresh cilantro and mixed in fresh pineapple chunks which worked beautifully. Roasted cashews would work here as well.

Makes 4 servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 31, 2007; 9:16 AM ET Dinner Tonight , Summer , Vegetarian/Vegan
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Kim, where do you find tamarind paste/pulp in DC? Anywhere metro accessible? What part of the store would it be in?

Posted by: Carless in DC | July 31, 2007 1:07 PM

tamarind paste can be found in whole foods but if you are in the ballston area of arlington, check out the indian spice / halal store on wilson blvd near 10th street. It is across from rendevous cafe.

Posted by: ma-arl | July 31, 2007 1:49 PM

I missed the chat today, but here's a really good squash blossom recipe. The recipe is from an issue of the now defunct Taunton's Kitchen Garden.

Golden Squash Blossom Crema (Crema de Flores de Calabaza)
Makes 6 servings

1 1/2 tbs butter
1 large white onion, chopped into 1/4-in. dice
3 cups good chicken broth
1 small boiling potato, peeled and roughly chopped
25 large, fresh squash blossoms (3-in. to 4-in male blossoms)
2 poblano chiles
1 cup milk
1 medium zucchini, cut into 1/2-in. pieces
kernels from 1 large ear of corn
1/2 cup heavy cream or creme fraiche
1 1/2 tsp salt
epazote or parsley for garnish

In a medium (4 qt.) soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until lightly brown, about 5 min. Scoop out half of the onion and set aside. Add the broth and potato, partially cover, and simmer over medium-low heat for 20 min.

While the broth is simmering, prepare the squash blossoms. Peel off the sepals that come out of the base of the blossoms. Break off the stems. Remove the stamen in the center of each flower and discard. Cut the blossoms crosswise into 1/2-in., including the bulbous base.

Add half the blossoms to the broth and simmer 3 min. In a food processor or in batches in a blender, puree the mixture and return it to the pot.

Roast the chiles directly over a gas flame, or on a medium-hot gas grill, or 4 in. below a very hot broiler. Turn occasionally until blistered and blackened on all sides, 4 to 6 min. for the flame or grill, about 10 min. For the broiler. Cover with a kitchen towel and let stand about 5 min. Peel off the charred skin, cut out the seed pod, then quickly rinse to remove straggling bits of skin and seeds. Cut into 1/4-in. dice.

Add the chiles to the soup along with the milk and reserved onion; bring to a simmer and cook for 10 min. Add the zucchini and corn, simmer a couple of minutes, then add the remaining squash blossoms. Simmer a couple of minutes longer (the strips of blossom will soften into deep-golden "streamers"). Remove from heat, stir in the cream, taste, and season with salt. Serve in warm bowls garnished with epazote or parsley.

Posted by: Ophey | July 31, 2007 2:11 PM

Another favorite, idiot-proof eggplant recipe is in Nancie McDermott's "Quick and Easy Vietnamese". We make this about once a week - roasted eggplant in a garlic fish sauce with chili peppers - and play around with the ingrediants (adding tomatoes, thai basil, hot sauce).

Any suggestions for more eggplant recipes?

Posted by: Alexandria | July 31, 2007 2:16 PM

eggplant handles being grilled really really well. i have really gotten into grilling veggies. i coat the veggies with olive oil & put them on the grill. eggplant & zukes take a while but summer squash grills pretty quickly. there is a sweet spot with summer squash where it is just cooked enough so that it tastes like it's been buttered. eggplant is like a sponge; it can absorb as much olive oil as you put on it. still tasty.

Posted by: quark | July 31, 2007 3:02 PM

This looks delicious! I made a really good vegan ragu from Venturesome Vegetarian Cooking. It's very "meaty." The secret ingredient is dried cranberries to give a little punch!

Posted by: Jessica "Su Good Eats" | August 1, 2007 9:57 PM

Would really appreciate the Thai recipe for Spicy eggplant! I LOVE it. Either the Lemongrass version from Annapolis, MD or the one form Thai Square in Arlington,VA.

Posted by: Anna | August 16, 2007 1:27 PM

Hello Ms. O'Donnel,

I just wanted to let you know that eggplants photo in this article is NOT Japanese eggplants. I am Japanese and I just got back from Japan for vacation, my parents grew them and my aunt is a farmer. Japanese egglplants are extremely dark purple, quite close to black. And they don't have green stem. Stem is same color as fruit, dark purple with thorn. I don't know exactly formal name of this pictured kind of eggplants but if you go to asian market, they are sold as "Chinese eggplants". I used to grow Japanese one while I used to live in Minnesota because I couldn't get "right" Japanese eggplants. Here I am still looking for it and what I found at Farmer's Market in Burke last Saturday was pictured ones, Chinese eggplants. You can substitute Chinese one for Japanese but I can tell the difference and I prefer Japanese kind. Its very meaty and flavorful, Chinese ones are tasteless, no flavor at all to me. I really miss my parents eggplants and cucumbers that I used to harvest them every morning in the muggy summer on their backyard. And sizes for Japanese eggplants are about 1.5 inches wide and 4 to 5 inches length. If they are bigger than that, too much seeds and not tasty. I prefer small one. Maybe you can find Japanese eggplants at Mitsuwa Supermarket in New Jersey? I am not sure because I have not been there yet.


Posted by: Yoko | August 16, 2007 3:42 PM

Yoko, thanks for your comments. I bought the pictured eggplants from a local farmer, who referred to them as Japanese eggplants, and I didn't bother to verify. Since your comment, I have seen them referred to as Chinese eggplant. Thanks for your comments.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | August 21, 2007 10:07 AM

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