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Braising eggplant until just soft and thoroughly flavored is not a common technique in Western-style cooking routines. But in Asia, where eggplant varieties tend toward long and slender shapes like zucchini, it's ubiquitous, often featured in stir-fries and curries. A typical Sichuan braised eggplant, for example, infuses the sliced discs with plenty of garlic in a chili bean- and soy-based sauce. So, how to improve upon a classic like this? The dish reaches new heights of flavor when finished with a peppery kick of Thai basil.
Like many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Taiwan shares a penchant for basil—there's basil tossed in with tofu, with clams, and, most famously, chicken. I've never enjoyed eggplant as much as I have in Taiwan, thanks to this unexpected flourish. The island also has culinary influence from Sichuan province, as evidenced in the use of the intensely umami fermented bean and chili sauce, or doubanjiang. Savory, spicy, slightly sweet, and somehow refreshing, this eggplant combination is satisfying enough to elevate it from a mere side dish to a vegetarian main course.
Unlike the common Genovese basil varietal found in the States, Thais basil is a slightly serrated-leafed herb with a somewhat more peppery, anise-tinged flavor. That said, they're pretty similar, and can be used interchangeably. Can you tell which basil is which?
I'm sure you're wondering whether you can use common, large eggplant in place of Asian eggplants for this recipe. You can... but let me briefly explain: Asian eggplants are just superior to common eggplants in so many ways. What? If you agree that the most succulent part of eggplant is neither the skin nor the mushy seed pocket, but the flesh in between, then due to their longer, thinner shape, Asian eggplants just have more of it. (Imagine a cucumber shaped like a watermelon.) Plus, their skin is thin enough to skip peeling. Neat slices of them also cook evenly, with equal proportions of skin and seed in each, and won't fall apart as easily as big eggplant chunks. Also, the flesh isn't bitter enough to prompt some cooks to salt and drain it prior to cooking. But, of course, do weigh in with a comment if you're so inclined.
Lastly, since eggplant is now in season and available in so many shades, stripes, and sizes at farmers markets, there's no reason not to opt for an Asian eggplant. To be sure, "Asian eggplant" refers to a broad category of varieties, some more deeper-colored or curled than others. The typical variety common in Chinese cuisine is a rather large and tube-like eggplant, with neon orchid-purple skin. But for the sake of simplicity (and to exclude the tiny, round Thai eggplants, which feature a different texture altogether), we'll call all these slender varieties "Asian," and fair game, here.
This dish is very easy to make, for all its range of flavors. You can even add a protein, like sliced chicken breast or tofu, or toss in more colorful vegetables (carrots and snap peas would go nicely). Just be sure to braise the eggplant partway, first. As the sauce bubbles away, the eggplant pieces will absorb it like sponges, rendering them soft and richly flavorful.
About the author: Cathy Erway is the author of The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove. She blogs at Not Eating Out In New York and hosts the weekly podcast, "Eat Your Words" on Heritage Radio Network.