It’s one thing for the kitchen to smell wonderful when eggplants are roasting on the stove, where they take on a terrific smokiness as they char and cook. But when the soft, sweet flesh is fried, the kitchen smells heavenly. I had that discovery last week when I ended up roasting a bunch of eggplants. After making Indian baigan bharta and eating it Vietnamese style with scallion oil and fish sauce, there was still eggplant leftover. I’d pulled the flesh apart to let it drain and it dawned upon me that the eggplant pieces had the shape and texture of raw oysters, which got me thinking about frying them for a vegetarian oyster po’boy banh mi.
Usually I use cornmeal and corn flour but there was an open bag of semolina flour on the counter. I wondered how the eggplant would fry up coated in the coarse flour made from durum wheat (the same stuff used for pasta). Pretty well, I found out. The fried eggplant pieces were crisp on the outside, browned beautifully, and reheated well. I was hooked.
This weekend I bought more eggplant and tried out the method again – just to be sure. The beautiful thing about this approach is the eggplant can be roasted and kept in the fridge for days before you fry it. It drains as it sits so that’s a bonus.
The resulting banh mi looked like an oyster po’ boy but when I ate it, I thought, “It’s just an amazing fried eggplant banh mi.” Try it out while eggplants are still in season. Because eggplant and tomatoes are friends, I combined the lemongrass and green tomato pickle with the daikon and carrot for my banh mi. You can use one or the other. Both recipes, as well as the recipe for the roll, are in The Banh Mi Handbook; any of the mayonnaises, including the eggless one on page 28, and the garlic yogurt sauce on page 29, would work well.
You can put this fried eggplant in a full-on banh mi sandwich, small sliders, or atop crostini. Just cut the eggplant to fit. You can’t lose.
Eggplant selection tips: Find ones that feel firm and solid. They should have smooth, dark skin. No blemishes or soft spots allowed. Two medium eggplants work well here because they’ll cook up well on the stove. Big eggplants may not cook through, and not take on enough of the smoky char of direct-heat cooking.
Fried Eggplant Banh Mi
Yields: Enough for 4 sandwiches
- 2 firm eggplants, each about 1 pound (450 g)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 teaspoon curry powder, cayenne, or paprika
- 3/4 cup (180hml) semolina flour
- Canola or other neutral oil, for panfrying
- Use a fork to poke holes all over the eggplants. The holes ventilate and prevent the egglants from bursting.
- Over medium-high heat, grill the eggplants directly on the stove's grates for about 20 minutes, rotating occasionally for even cooking. Aim to char all over. Regulate the heat as needed to achieve a smokiness and cook thoroughly. The eggplants will collapse and feel somewhat soft all over; if they aren’t cooked through after peeling, you can microwave them. (You can do this on a charcoal or gas-powered grill too. Or broil 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm) away from the heat source. Try a cast-iron pan on the stovetop if you don't have a gas stove, suggests Dolli-Pop on the VWK Facebook page.) Cool in bowl.
- Remove the skin from the eggplant. Let sit for a few minutes to drain well. (You can refrigerate the eggplant for several days at this point.)
- Use fingers to tear the eggplant into large pieces. Pour off any liquid that accumulates. Set aside.
- Combine the salt, curry powder (or other spices), and semolina flour. Coat the eggplant pieces well, getting into the nooks and crannies. Set aside.
- Film the bottom of a skillet with oil and heat over medium-high. Panfry the eggplant for 4 to 5 minutes, turning midway, until crisp and golden brown. Cool on a rack and when if there are soft spots, refry briefly. The eggplant reheats beautifully on a rack in a hot oven or toaster over. They can be quickly re-panfried and reheated too!
- Use for banh mi with the usual, delicious suspects: crisp, light baguette-style bread, mayonnaise (or garlic yogurt sauce), Maggi seasoning sauce, pickles, cucumber, chile, and cilantro.