A popular and inexpensive food found throughout China, the white-skinned variety was the first that English-speaking people encountered, hence the name eggplant. Nonetheless, this versatile food may be ivory, purple, or even light green in colour. It is native to India and Southeast Asia and has been cultivated in China since 600 B.C. The original Chinese name translates as ‘Malayan purple melon’, indicating that Chinese traders brought it from the Malay peninsula. Although it is botanically a fruit, it is consumed as a vegetable. The size and shape varies from large and plump to small and thin. The most common type, the large purple variety, is easily available; the Chinese prefer the more delicate flavour of the smaller, thin aubergine. These are becoming more readily available in the West.
Try to Find the long, thin, light purple variety known as Chinese or Japanese aubergines. They look like young courgettes [US zucchini] and tend to be sweet and tender with very few seeds. They are also easier to prepare, as they don’t need to be salted before cooking. Look for aubergines with unwrinkled, firm, smooth, unblemished skin. They should sound hollow when tapped.
The large variety found in supermarkets can be kept, unwrapped, in the bottom part of your refrigerator for at least 2 weeks. However, the thinner, Chinese variety should be eaten within a few days of purchase.
Chinese normally do not peel aubergines since the skin preserves texture, taste, and shape. Large aubergines most often found in supermarkets should be cut according to the recipe, sprinkled with a little salt, and left to sit for 20-30 minutes. They should then be rinsed and any liquid blotted dry with paper towels, or rinsed carefully and dried. This process extracts bitterjuices and excess moisture from the vegetable before it is cooked, giving a truer taste to a dish. The aubergine will also absorb less moisture. This procedure is unnecessary if you are using Chinese aubergines.
© Ken Hom and reproduced with his kind permission.