Colorful, meaty, richly flavored eggplants have it all — they're filling, low in fat, good for your brain and are even said to reduce your cholesterol. They originally came from India, but eggplants are now staples of Italian, French, Indian and Arab cuisines. They are high in fiber, folate and potassium, and you can buy them in a rainbow of colors.
Because of their association with the nightshade family, eggplants were considered poisonous until the 17th century. They originated in India, where they were used to make fashionable dark dyes, but as the eggplant spread to Europe and Africa, it became popular as a decorative garden plant. Today the most commonly eaten variety of eggplant is a rich, dark purple, but in 16th-century England, the most common variety was white. These big, white globes reminded botanists of goose eggs, thus the name "eggplant."
How to prepare
Eggplants are often the main part of a meal and can be considered a replacement for meat. They can be grilled, steamed, fried or baked, but are rarely eaten raw. The old favorites — eggplant Parmesan, ratatouille, baba ghanoush — are always winners, but so are newer ideas like eggplant pizza or grilled-eggplant sandwiches.
Though they don't look it, eggplants are highly perishable. They can't be canned, and they'll go bad two or three days after purchase. Store them out in the open or in the fridge in a plastic bag to increase their shelf life by a few days.
The acclaimed Peter Chang of Peter Chang China Café graciously shared the recipe for one of his most popular dishes.
Vegetable oil for frying
6 Chinese eggplants, peeled and cut lengthwise into "fingers" (each eggplant should yield 8 eggplant fingers about the size of French fries)
2 scallions, chopped into 1-inch sections
4 sprigs of cilantro, chopped (stems and leaves)
1/4 teaspoon of chili oil
1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon of hot Chinese chili powder
1/2 teaspoon of hot paprika
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/4 teaspoon of powdered chicken bouillon
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 cup of cornstarch
Heat the vegetable oil to 350 degrees in a cast-iron pot, wok or deep fryer. (The size of your pot, wok or fryer will determine the amount of oil.) Combine all of the ingredients, except the cornstarch, cilantro, scallions and eggplant, in a bowl. Set aside. This is the spice mixture that you will toss the fried eggplant in.
Pour the cornstarch onto a large baking sheet. Moisten the eggplant pieces with a little water and then coat evenly with the cornstarch. Shake off any excess. Fry the eggplant pieces in batches in the hot oil. Once golden brown, remove them from the oil and let the pieces drain on a wire rack. Keep frying until all of the eggplant is done.
Toss the fried eggplant with the spice mixture. Then add the scallions and chopped cilantro and toss again. You can then toss the eggplant in a dry wok over high heat, quickly, if you want them crispier. Eat right away. Serves 4 as an appetizer.