recipe

Credit: EARL CARTER

Eggplant dip and miso-roasted Japanese eggplant

I hadn’t realised until a couple of years ago what a long and glorious history the eggplant has across many cultures. As a vegetable to eat, it has not always been a favourite of mine. As a vegetable to grow, sometimes it has presented as downright pernicious.

My early experiences of cooking and eating eggplant tended towards the Mediterranean style – grilled eggplant on antipasto platters, eggplant moussaka, battered eggplant. I’d sometimes also come across it in a curry or a laksa, or as part of a vegetable tempura plate. But by and large, I paid little attention to it.

Later in life I started growing eggplants, simply because I hadn’t before and wanted to see how they went. They went quite viciously, in fact. I wasn’t familiar with how thorny an eggplant plant is. In the confines of my hothouse, the mere process of brushing past them could result in being lanced in the leg. Yet while they were dangerous, I soon found them to be a beautiful and engaging plant. The leaves are floppy, the flowers beautiful and the fruit almost erotically pendulous. And when one fancies a vegetable while it is growing, there is great excitement attached to harvesting and cooking it.

Slowly eggplant has become my friend. So I’ll share a little history of this singular vegetable. Eggplant is indigenous to a huge area from the north of India down through southern China and Vietnam. The Indians often refer to it as the “king of vegetables”. It is represented in early Chinese scholarly texts on agriculture from the Jin dynasty. Eggplants moved into Japanese cuisine in about the 8th century. As part of the nightshade family, eggplant is related to potatoes and tobacco, but it is technically a berry.

Recently, I had a visiting chef, Nancy Singleton Hachisu, cook at the restaurant. Nancy hails from America but has lived in Japan for more than 30 years and has studied the country’s food culture in depth. Her latest book features recipes from Japanese farmers and chefs and focuses largely on farm- and home-style cooking. One of the dishes she had on her menu at my restaurant was a cold eggplant soup with a garnish of hot-smoked horse mackerel. It was a dish that surprised me with both its simplicity and its deliciousness. The eggplants – long Japanese-style ones – were simply grilled over hot coals until cooked, then cooled, skinned and pureed with salt, a splash of olive oil and water. They were then chilled and served with the smoked fish, chives and a drop of oil. Another dish included a grilled capsicum smeared with a complex miso paste. I found it so delicious and have adapted it here to be used on roasted eggplant. It’s terrific as a snack or as part of a Japanese banquet.

Eggplant dip

– 1 bulb garlic

– salt

– olive oil

– 3 Italian eggplants

Preheat your oven to 160ºC.

Cut the garlic in half across the middle, then season with salt and a splash of oil. Put the halves back together, wrap in aluminium foil and roast until soft (about 45 minutes).

While the garlic is roasting, fire up a chargriller and roast the eggplants until they are soft. If they explode before they are fully cooked, just push them back together and keep grilling. When the eggplants are soft, remove them from the grill and cool until they can be handled. Peel the skin off and reserve the flesh. Remove the garlic from the oven and squeeze out the flesh. I like to chop the eggplant flesh and garlic together on a board as this results in a more textured dip. Add extra olive oil and salt to taste. Serve with grilled flatbread.

Miso-roasted Japanese eggplant

Inspired by Nancy Singleton Hachisu

– 2 tbsp light brown sugar

– 6 tbsp white miso paste

– 2 tbsp brown rice miso paste

– 1 tbsp sake

– 1 tbsp mirin

– 1 tbsp soy sauce

– 8 Japanese eggplants

In a small saucepan stir the sugar into the miso pastes. Add the sake, mirin and soy sauce and stir until emulsified. Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook, stirring, for three to five minutes, until thickened a little and fragrant.

Preheat your oven to 200ºC.

Cut the eggplants in half lengthways, then slash the flesh in a diamond pattern without cutting through the skin. Smear with the miso mixture and roast in the oven for 15 minutes until the flesh is soft and the paste burnished.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2020 as "Purple patches".

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Annie Smithers
is the owner and chef of du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.

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