There’s a basic joy in roasted eggplant because you know that with a little patience, you’ll be rewarded with a smooth center encased by scorched skin. One of my favorite dishes, which I have yet to recreate at home but constantly fantasize about, comes directly from a Chinese street food stand. It usually consists of cooking a full Chinese eggplant until it is thoroughly browned all over and squishy to the touch, then splitting it down the middle and liberally coating it with soy sauce and a mountain of minced garlic, chilies, and scallions. That umami-rich, allium-packed sauce permeates into every layer of squishy eggplant, which easily rips from its burned skin when scraped through with a chopstick.
In order to achieve that level of melting tenderness in my regular cooking, I use smaller eggplant varietals that cook faster and are less bitter. Along with other common varieties such as larger American and Italian eggplant, slender Japanese and Chinese eggplant are readily available year-round, but summer and early fall are the best times to scout the farmers’ market selection when stalls are packed with heirloom varieties such as tiny Fairy Tale, striated graffiti, and shallot-hued Rosa Bianca. You may unlock the full potential of eggplant and its numerous types by preparing them in a variety of ways, including rich, creamy, charred, crispy, or caramelized.
After making Namiko Chen’s donburi dish for the first time, Japanese eggplant rapidly became a supermarket staple for me—a recipe I’ve returned to at least 20 times. Each sliver of eggplant browns and crisps in a skillet after being thinly sliced lengthwise and coated in potato starch before being drizzled in soy sauce, mirin, and ginger. When the liquid comes into contact with the heated pan and the starch-coated flesh, it bubbles and thickens, sticking to every nook and crevice. As a result, the surface is crispy and somewhat burnt, with a soft center. Each slice is shingled over a hot bowl of rice, allowing a perfect combination of robust, savory flavors to sink into every bite.
The Thai grilled eggplant salad is adapted in Leela Punyaratabandhu’s recipe for yam ma-khuea yao to use other widely encountered Asian eggplants, such as Japanese or Chinese. “They take little preparation, do not require salting to eliminate bitterness, and do not even require peeling,” she writes. “Just toss them on the grill whole and cook until they’re charred on the exterior and soft and sweet on the inside—a wonderful canvas for a vibrant blend of flavors and textures.”