Dishes featuring eggplants cooked on an open fire are popular in many parts of the world. In fact, they tend to be classics and favorites. Take baingan bharta in India, and baba ghanoush and its many variants in the Middle East and Mediterranean. In Vietnam, the grilled eggplant is peeled after cooking (just like in other cuisines), cut up then simply presented with green onion (scallion) oil and a dip of fish sauce, chiles, and garlic.
What makes such eggplant dishes special is the live fire cooking. As the eggplant chars, it develops a smoky, sweet flavor. A lot of eggplant’s natural moisture releases to leave the vegetable (it’s technically a fruit) with a soft meaty quality. I typically smoke medium-small or medium eggplants but my friend Eric Banh recently sent a recipe out in his newsletter that called for smoking skinny Chinese eggplants. Surprisingly, I found some gorgeous ones at my local Safeway and Whole Foods. Sure they cost more at $3.49 per pound but they were of high quality and I saved myself a one-hour drive to the Chinese market.
I’ve written about Eric and Sophie Banh before. They’re the dynamic brother-and-sister team behind the Saigon Siblings restaurant group that owns and operates six (6) restaurants in the Seattle area: Ba Bar, Monsoon and Seven Beef. We’ve been friends for over ten years and collaborate on various projects to spotlight Vietnamese food and cooking. (This Wednesday, October 25, we’re doing a special pho event at their newest Ba Bar restaurant.)
Eric and his family are Vietnamese-Chinese, born and raised in Cholon, the Chinatown area of Saigon, located in District 5. He’s not overly religious but remembered wonderfully prepared Buddhist vegetarian dishes from his childhood. His family visited local temples a lot and his takeaway were the flavors. I guess that’s why he became a chef and restaurateur, despite degrees in business. (We are similar in many ways!).
Cooking skinny eggplant is one thing, but what makes Eric’s recipe brilliant is the alluring creamy sauce that’s constructed from mostly fermented white tofu (chao in Vietnamese, bai fu ru in Mandarin Chinese). Fermented tofu is akin to an aged creamy cheese. It looks like big chunks of feta, but has the savory and slight sweetness of blue cheese. And yes, it amazingly comes from soy beans. (There’s a novel new vegan cheese product called Chao that borrows on the traditional Chinese fermented tofu but don’t buy that stuff at Whole Foods thinking you can use it for this recipe!)
I’ve got recipes for making chao in Asian Tofu but you don’t have to wait weeks to make Eric’s dish. Buy the tofu at a Chinese or Vietnamese market. My favorite brands come from Taiwan. This one has some liquor to create a very elegant quality.
Sometimes the fermented tofu has chile in the jar but I’ve found that the chile doesn’t do much for the commercially-made tofu. (The homemade stuff gets a certain kick from it.) It’s up to you at the point of purchase. A jar of fermented tofu can be kept in the fridge for years. Trust me.
In Eric’s recipe, the fermented white tofu is simply whisked with other ingredients into a tangy, rich tasting dressing. It’s a dressing that takes less than a minute to make.
Because eggplant benefits from a certain amount of oil to bring out its sweetness, I opted to make some green onion oil (mo hanh) to add to the eggplant. At Eric’s restaurants, the dish gets fried crispy shallot. Mint is the pivotal finish. At a brew pub in Saigon, I had a grilled eggplant finished with lots of pungent cilantro. Mint is zippier and brighter.
Make this dish soon, while good eggplants are still available.
Related recipe: Spring asparagus with shrimp (a recipe by Eric and his sister Sophie Banh)
Grilled Eggplant with Soy Chao Vinaigrette and Mint
Yield 4 servings
At the store, select firm Chinese eggplants with light or deep purple skin. Choose solid ones. Reject squishy, spongy eggplants. If Chinese eggplants are not available, use 2 or 3 regular globe eggplants; the selection criteria is the same. Cook the eggplants and prep the dressing and green onion oil a day ahead. Store in the fridge; bring to room temp to assemble.
- 4 Chinese eggplants (1 1/2 pounds total), stem ends removed
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fermented white tofu (chao, sold at Chinese and Vietnamese markets in small jars)
- Scant 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon minced and mashed garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped Thai chile (with seeds intact)
- Pinch of Chinese five-spice powder (optional) 2 tablespoons water 1 tablespoon unseasoned Japanese rice wine vinegar 1 1/2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
- 1/4 cup thinly slice green onion, white and green parts
- 1 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
- 2 tablespoons hand-torn or roughly chopped fresh mint leaves
- Cook the eggplant directly on the grates of a medium-hot grill or stove-top gas burner for about 15 minutes, or until the skin turns dark brown (or black) and blisters, and the flesh feels very soft. Frequently turn the eggplants to ensure even cooking.
- Transfer to a plate or baking sheet to rest and cool for 10 to 15 minutes. When cooled, peel off the blistered skin; use wet hands to rub off stubborn skin bits. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, prepare the dressing. In a bowl, whisk together the tofu, sugar, garlic, chile, and five-spice powder. Add the water, vinegar, and soy sauce. Whisk until well-blended and creamy. You should have about 1/4 cup. Set aside.
- For the green onion oil, put the green onion in a small bowl so they may be quickly added to the oil. In a very small saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat until hot. To test, drop in a green onion slice; it should sizzle on contact. Add the green onion. Stir immediately to expose them quickly to the oil. When the green onion has collapsed and softened, after about 5 seconds, remove from the pan from the heat. Let cool for a few minutes (or up to several hours, covered) before using.
- To serve, trim the stem ends from the eggplants. Halve each lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 2 to 2 1/2-inch-long pieces. Transfer to a plate or shallow bowl. Pour on the vinaigrette, letting it pool at the bottom. Top with the green onion oil and sprinkle with the mint. When serving, be sure to include dressing with the eggplant.
Courses vegetable side