They are: long and bright-green, stout and white, skinny and purple, dark green marbles, mustard-yellow teardrops, white-speckled orbs. Not candy, eggplant. We have never seen or even heard of most of the varieties we've encountered in Thailand. Each type has its own use. There are two in particular that we love and highlight in this recipe. The first is 1-2' long, yellowish-green and cylindrical in shape, about 2" in diameter. Makhuea is the Thai word for eggplant, but I'm not sure what this one in particular is called. For our purposes, Long Thai Eggplant will have to do. The other eggplant we feature is pale green, with white speckles, and a round body; a bit larger than a golf ball. I have seen them called Kermit Eggplant at farmer's markets in the States, so let's go with that.
The first time we encountered a dish using Long Thai Eggplant was at PunPun. Chef P'Dang would slice the eggplant into rounds, batter them and fry them. It was unexpectedly tossed with herbs, raw onions, and a fiery, bright dressing of fresh red chile, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce and palm sugar. She only made it twice while we were there, but I wish she made it every day. Unfortunately, large scale frying is very unpractical in our tiny kitchen here in Chiang Mai, so we've found other ways to eat makhuea.
We have been experimenting with variations on a recipe for a grilled eggplant salad from Andy Ricker's cookbook, Pok Pok. Despite our lack of grill or oven, we have been very successful with his yam makhuea yao recipe. Our yam makhuea or eggplant salad recipe was influenced by both of the aforementioned preparations.
The final inspiration came from a conversation we had with Naomi Duguid (James Beard Award winning author of many books about Southeast Asia). Over coffee in an Old City cafe, she suggested slicing eggplant thin, tossing it in a tangy dressing and eating it raw. We found that Kermit Eggplant is sweet enough to eat raw, and is typically served as part of crudités platters in Thailand.
This recipe is an interpretation of our experiences with Thai eggplant. It's really, really great. It should be noted that eggplant is currently out of season in the States and will be back in warmer months. Even when it is in season it may be hard to find Long Thai Eggplant. Japanese Eggplant is your next best bet. It looks very similar to its long Thai cousin, but it's purple skinned and slightly smaller. Kermit Eggplant is also referred to as Apple Eggplant or Thai Eggplant. Many similar heirloom varieties are available during the summer. Try one, and if it looks similar to a Kermit Eggplant it most likely tastes similar. If you can't find one that tastes good raw, this element may be excluded.
This recipe serves 2, with rice or toast, as a light lunch or can be served as part of a larger meal for 4 people.
2 Long Thai Eggplant
1 Kermit Eggplant
5 cloves of garlic minced for frying (see Thai Condiment post part 1), plus 2 cloves garlic for dressing, roughly chopped
2 Dry red chiles (Thai, Pulla, Arbol, or Calabrian variety) for frying
3/4 cup of vegetable oil for frying
1 Large egg preferably at room temperature
1 1/2Tbsp palm sugar or dark brown sugar syrup (directions included in recipe, palm sugar is the truly Thai ingredient. My have found dark brown sugar to be a good substitute)
2 fresh red Thai Chiles or 2 Serrano Chiles, sliced thin
2Tbsp fish sauce
2Tbsp fresh squeezed lime juice
1/2Tbsp white vinegar (preferably an Asian brand)
5 sprigs of cilantro leaves and stems roughly chopped
1Tbsp reserved garlic oil
1. Cut each Long Thai Eggplant into 3 lengths of equal size.
2. Heat a cast iron skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. There will be smoke so make sure your window is open and your vent fan is on. Add the eggplant pieces into the hot, dry pan so that they all have contact with the pan’s surface. If they don't all fit, do as many batches as needed. Let them cook without moving them.
3. Smoke will start to rise out of the pan, this is good, you want to burn the skin to give the eggplant a smokey flavor. When you have burned the skin on one side, turn them so the skin is evenly charred on all sides. When the eggplant is charred on all sides, it should be very tender so that a knife can be inserted without any resistance. If they still need to cook more, continue to rotate them in the pan until they are done. Remove the eggplant to a plate and allow to cool.
4. While the eggplant is cooling, work on the fried garlic and chiles. Before starting, make sure you have a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl, and a plate set up as the final destination for your fried garnishes. They need to be quickly removed from the heat when they're done or they risk burning.
5. In a small sauce pot, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. The oil will be hot enough when a single piece of garlic bubbles gently to the top, as soon as it’s dropped in. If it is too hot (crackling or aggressive boiling), set aside to cool and try again in a minute or so.
6. First, add the chiles to the oil. Fry them, turning every minute or so, until they are a dark, blackish brown, about 4-7 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon to a plate.
7. Add all of the garlic to the oil at once and fry, stirring frequently, until the garlic is golden brown. Strain the garlic well, reserving the oil in the bowl, and set the garlic aside on the plate with the chiles. Don't throw away the oil; you now have garlic oil which you will use to finish this dish. You can also drizzle it on toasted bread with salt and pepper, use it in salad dressing or to finish soups.
8. Boil your egg. Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Use a spoon to gently lower the egg into the water. Set a 7 minute timer. As soon as the timer goes off, pour off the boiling water, and run cold water over the egg for one or two minutes, and allow to cool in the cold water.
9. Start making the dressing. First make the sugar syrup. In a small sauce pot, combine 1/2 cup of water with 1/2 cup of either brown sugar or palm sugar. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Take 1 1/2Tbsp of the syrup and set in a small sauce pot for the dressing. Refrigerate the rest and use as a sweetener for drinks, pancakes, sauces or dressings.
10. Add the chiles, garlic, fish sauce, lime juice and vinegar to the pot with the syrup.
11. Gently warm the dressing and set to the side.
12. Slice the Kermit Eggplant into 1/8" thick rounds. Peel the boiled egg and chop it roughly. Peel the charred skin off of the Long Thai Eggplant, discard the skin. It should peel away easily with your fingers (if a little bit stays on, don't worry). Slice the meat of the eggplant into 1" lengths.
13. In a mixing bowl, marinate the cooked and raw eggplant in the dressing for 2-3 minutes. Plate all of the eggplant on a serving dish and pour any remaining dressing over the top, it should be juicy.
14. Sprinkle the fried garlic, chopped eggs, and chopped cilantro on top. Drizzle the garlic oil on. Set the fried chiles on top; they can be crushed into the dish to taste.
**Thai cooking can be labor intensive, and this dish is a good example. To reduce the prep time, multi task. While the eggplant is cooking, the water for the egg should be starting to boil. While the garlic is frying, make the syrup for the dressing. It seems hard but after a few tries it gets much easier. I have found this recipe more than worth the work.