Picture a St Kilda farmers’ market. Windy Melbourne summer day, me and my husband ambling around in Birkenstocks and hemp t-shirts, heads shielded against a sun that refuses to come out, but looking quite the part – straw, of course, just a little ratty.
Our retriever leads the way to the Sicilian barbecue stall, while we attempt to divert him to the locally roasted fairtrade coffee counter. Arms hold baskets that look pretty but are annoyingly cumbersome when full, and seem to take on that sated state with just a bottle of South Melbourne kombucha and half a dozen RSPCA approved, under 50km eggs. It spoils our coffee plans and leaves us with handfuls of organic rainbow chard made lacy with snail nibbles, bushy-stalked carrots (still speckled with pesticide-free soil from the Yarra Valley) and armpits tightly wedging multigrain artisinal sourdough (made with authentic mother).
Nobody knows we drive a diesel SUV. Surely they wouldn’t guess our children are home glued to the Playstation or rolling around their beds (which do not have sustainable bamboo sheets) either fighting daylight or fondling their iPhones. Nor could they suspect that we are not architects, bar owners or professional fundraisers for environmental charities.
We’re so absorbed with projecting a yes-I-might-have-been-a-Dubai-expat-for-ten-years-but-I-can-still-exude-Melbourne-hipster vibe that I accidentally become enamoured with four buxom eggplants and forget that my dinner guests that night include He-who-doesn’t-eat-weird.
This guy might be in his forties, but he still has a palate spectrum shyer than my ten-year-old’s. You know the type – firm believer in the white diet (bananas, bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, chicken), supplemented by fillet steak, hamburgers and Barossa Shiraz. Usually we would simply put on the barbecue, blacken him a 1-inch slab of tenderloin and serve it up with some baked potato, salad and mustard (he’d ignore the salad and the mustard, but we’d at least have some variety for other guests). But, after returning to my home town, discovering myself back in the burbs and having moments of bleakness, my adventure-loving spirit decided I should attempt to convert him. (Besides, all our shizzle is presently in a container floating somewhere off the coast of Brunai, and so we don’t have a barbecue.)
My husband popped down to the supermarket for some steak, just in case.
I’ve learned over time that everyone can be converted to an eggplant lover. You just have to make sure you attack the bitterness and get the skin caramelised. Besides the enforced ingredients dictated by my sloppy shopping and a menagerie of leftovers, I used inspiration from two of my favourite eggplant dishes, a Sri Lankan eggplant curry (too spicy and bitter for He-who-doesn’t-eat-weird) and Fish-fragrant eggplant (which is superb, but convoluted in the making).
Fried eggplant with miso paste
- Two large egplants, sliced into thick chips
- 1/4 cup salt
- Oil for frying (I use peanut or rice bran oil)
- 1 red onion, sliced
- 1 bunch of spinach, washed and loosely chopped
- 1 tbsp peanut oil
- 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1 tbsp fresh ginger, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp miso paste
- 2 tsp fish sauce
- 2 tsp lime juice
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 2 tbsp sweet chilli sauce
- Soy sauce and caster sugar to taste
- Fresh coriander and crushed roasted peanuts to garnish
Put salt and a small amount of boiling water in a large pan and stir until dissolved. Top up with cold water to make a salt bath for the eggplant, then add all the pieces, weighing down if necessary to ensure all pieces are submerged. Leave for 30 minutes then strain and pat dry.
On a medium-high heat, add enough oil to a wok or fry pan to shallow-fry the eggplant in batches (Or, if you are lucky enough to have a deep fryer, you could save yourself about 15 minutes of cooking). Set aside to drain on paper towel.
Add some oil to a large wok, and saute the onion, ginger and garlic on just enough heat to brown them a little. When the onion is nicely softened, add miso paste and other liquid ingredients. The miso paste likes to clump, so stir well to make sure ingredients are distributed evenly. If the pan starts to dry out, add a splash of water to prevent the sauce from burning. Test for salt and sweetness and add soy sauce and sugar until you get a punchy balance of flavours. Depending on your lime, you may need to add a little more juice, or some rice wine vinegar for sourness.
Add the eggplant and spinach to the sauce, and saute until all the ingredients are warmed through. Garnish with fresh coriander and roasted peanuts. Serve as a main course or side dish. For a vegetarian option, simply skip the fish sauce, and check your balance for taste – you may need to add a little more lime or soy sauce.
By the way, He-who-doesn’t-eat-weird did try the eggplant. A teaspoon. And then he ate husband’s emergency beef tenderloin. It seems I’ll never be a proper hipster, and he’ll never be a gourmand. But I think we’ll live…