The Thai named variety of eggplant is a green and white variegated color, round in shape and slightly larger than a golf ball. The skin is thinner than a typical purple eggplant and the seeds are a prominently brown color that contrasts with the white flesh. The seeds and skin are very bitter while the flesh is sweet and balanced like a beam. It grows like a tomato.
Some folks are intimidated by eggplants of any kind, but the Thai eggplant in a supermarket is not only overpriced, but resembles a tomatillo or something else the regular cook doesn’t recognize or know how to prepare. Even those who experiment with eggplants can become befuddled when they attempt a familiar recipe like eggplant Parmesan. Eggplant becomes exceptionally porous when cooked. It soaks up any oil or liquid it is cooked in. Too often, people try to fry eggplant when the pan isn’t hot enough or bake it for a slender time. The result is a soggy, bitter mess without flavor, borderline call for take out.
Thai eggplant come in a few different varieties. Most often, markets display a skinnier version of our traditional thick purple variety as a Japanese eggplant. The Thai variation of this thin long eggplant is usually green. Another variety is pea or baby eggplant which is about a centimeter in diameter and very bitter and crunchy. The grown green and white variety is the one I’m talking about and there are many other variations; all white, all green, orange, yellow etc. They are sometimes called Kermit, garden eggs or bitter balls.
The Thai eggplant is usually used in chili paste, chili sauces, in curries or eaten raw. The balance of bitter and sweet is less blatant than tamarind, but the blase effect is conducive to the spice of the basil and Thai chili in a curry. A member of the nightshade family, the eggplant maintains a variation to any taste bud. When you can skip stones like a flavor, the culinary palate can dance like tomorrow.
When selecting a Thai eggplant, look for smooth, taught skin with little give. Ensure that the calyx is intact and firmly attached. The sepals should be hugging the eggplant, rough and green. To cook, remove the stem and spiky leaf parts by tearing off. Quarter the small orb and scrape away the brown seeds with a side of a spoon. Add to curry or bake or fry. If adding to curry, wait until the last bubble of the coconut milk when you add the basil leaves. If frying, make sure your pan is hot, put the end of a wooden spoon in the hot oil and if it bubbles around, add your vegetable. If baking, coat with olive oil on a baking sheet, salt and season and wait half an hour until the flesh becomes translucent.
The baked or fried variety can be served with a variety of different sauces, Sriracha sauce or a chili paste is a no brainer, but mustard, soy sauce and fish sauce with Serrano slices works. Also peanut sauce or a tamarind sweet and sour mix.
When using the Thai baby eggplants, be sure to collect clusters that are still on the vine. The little beads will resemble chick peas. Be sure that the seed pods are not perforated and opening, they should be tight and when you bite into them they should burst like a bubble. It is important to recognize these baby eggplants because western cooking has often replaced them with sweet peas in green curries especially. A baby Thai eggplant, along with Thai basil and Kaffir limes is a wonderful compliment to the green curries.
I mentioned that these ingredients are often expensive in markets. Alas, it is a seasonal vegetable and often only found in farmer’s markets. The disproportion of cost is substantial. Hmong immigrants sell Thai eggplant at a tenth of the cost of markets. My lover bought about three pounds for a dollar today along with a thrown in hybrid of Thai basil. At the market it pushes five bucks a pound. Point is that you can buy seed online and explore your local ethnic stores. Often you will discover delicacies at a bargain price even if you aren’t in a basement.