I have a love-hate relationship with eggplants. We had an auspicious start, years of deliciousness, until we hit a rocky patch, in no small part due to me. And, although it’s smooth sailing once again, the memory of that fractious period refuses to completely fade.
Eggplants are a nightshade, technically a berry, and have found their way into cuisines throughout the world, making themselves indispensable. There are countless varieties ranging in colour, shape and bitterness – far more variety than a trip to a supermarket in Australia would have you believe.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the standard dark purple eggplant, with its shimmering smooth skin and bountiful curves. When perfectly ripe, they have a pleasing heft to them.
I grew up thinking this eggplant could do no wrong, mostly thanks to my mum’s skill in taming them. A regular on the table was what we called eggplant melanzane – I know, eggplant eggplant doesn’t really mean anything – that consisted of slices of thick eggplant, fried to black and layered with tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmesan and basil, then baked in the oven. There was also a Sri Lankan eggplant dish where pieces were liberally dusted with turmeric and salt, deep-fried, and added to a caramelised base of onions, tomatoes and mustard seeds. Laden with chilli and seasoned with tamarind and jaggery, this was such a favourite of mine that it now lives permanently on the menu at my restaurant. These dishes show eggplant at its finest, cooked with a crisp exterior and a yielding inside, a balance of bitterness with a creamy centre, the accompanying flavours strong with a good acidity to them.
Badly cooked eggplants, though, are a thing of nightmares. I have been known to take issue with food purely based on texture; if it’s not quite right then it can destroy an entire meal for me. Eggplant can all too easily fall into this category: steamed or undercooked it fills me with horror. Another common mistake is underseasoning. Eggplants need a lot of salt. These two things are why I am very wary of both caponata and ratatouille. But the real issue in our relationship came about because of one dish I am ashamed to say I not only cooked but also served to actual customers. It was based on a recipe I had read – an old Sicilian dish using eggplant in a dessert. If I remember rightly, it was steamed, stuffed with candied fruit and then covered in a chocolate sauce. I was apprehensive but did it anyway. It was this startling mistake, made more than 10 years ago, that really tainted my love.
The dish here veers in another direction altogether. It embraces the fruit’s affinity with charred flavours. The eggplant is cooked straight over a flame until it completely gives way with extremely blackened skin. Underneath you are left with a smoky, soft and unctuous delight. The sauce provides sourness to cut through, and seeds to give a salty crunch. And then what could be a dubiously textured thing becomes a dish with layers of flavour and texture. It is a lovely side to accompany a meal. But add some fresh bread and it becomes something you can sit around, tearing, scooping and dipping into, and discussing relationships past and present.