Strange-Flavor Eggplant

Recipes for something called Strange-Flavored Eggplant (or odd-flavored eggplant) pop up a lot in cookbooks from the 80′s. I discovered this while researching the origins of a starter we ate at Nopi in London. The rather unassuming plate was a sort of smashed up eggplant spread flavored with (what tasted like) sesame oil and soy sauce. It was sweet and sour and so delicious that we considered asking for a second of the same plate because we liked it so much. I came home and started to research the dish and kept coming across these recipes for strange-flavored eggplant.

At first I was worried the origins of the name might be racist-y (strange=foreign?). But it seems as though maybe it has more to do with the translation of a Chinese character? I don’t know. The title certainly doesn’t sell the recipe, which is actually quite wonderful. It isn’t what we had at Nopi, but is similar in its vibrancy. It is full of the flavors of Chinese-American cooking and pretty hard to resist. It really does stimulate the palate and get you excited to eat dinner, which is what we are all looking for in a starter.

In other news, I very happily contributed some of my favorite things to the latest issue of Lonny. I care about home design almost as much as I care about food, so it was a fun opportunity to get to engage in some of that with an online magazine I’ve always enjoyed. I am happy with the way my spread turned out (go designers at Lonny!),  I hope you’ll all check it out.

***The dip is best if made the day before you plan on serving it, the flavors really do develop. I served it with some garlic toasts, but I am sure you will have other good ideas. I am thinking about using the leftovers in an improvised fried rice dish.

Strange-Flavor Eggplant (recipe by Barbara Tropp from the China Moon Cookbook)

Eggplant:

  • 1 to 1 1/2 pound eggplant
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Aromatics:

  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped green onion
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red chile flakes (or to taste)

Sauce:

  • 3 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoon packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon unseasoned rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon hot water

Preheat oven to 475°F.

Remove the leaves from the eggplant and prick in several places. Bake, turning once, until fork-tender, 20 – 40 minutes. Remove eggplant from oven and slit lengthwise to speed cooling.

While still warm, remove the stem end and peel, scraping off the pulp and reserving. Process the pulp in a food processor until nearly smooth.

Combine aromatics in a small bowl. Combine sauce ingredients in a small bowl.

In a large skillet over med-high heat, add oil and swirl to coat. Cook aromatics until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add the sauce and simmer briefly (30 seconds?). Add eggplant puree to skillet and stir well to blend and heat through.

Remove from heat, taste and adjust chile flakes, sugar or vinegar to achieve a well-balanced flavor. Stir in sesame oil. Refrigerate overnight to allow flavors to meld. Serve at room temperature.

24 comments to “Strange-Flavor Eggplant”

  1. Sounds like a fabulous combination and is such a lovely alternative to the average roasted eggplant you often find in Mediterranean places! – I got to try.

  2. Wow, I don’t usually like eggplant, but every once in a while I try. Maybe I would like this strange version! It’s ingredients sound pretty tasty!

  3. This sounds like such a good baba ghanoush alternative! I find that anything made with sesame oil and soy is always super addictive.

  4. P.S. Great spread in Lonny, food + design is my favourite combination. :•)

  5. I can’t wait to try this and the whole time I make it I will think about how sweet you are to worry that the title of this recipe was racist-y.

  6. I always struggle with eggplant – will file this for the next time I am faced with what to do with that purple bulbous vegetable in my refrigerator…

  7. This recipe reminded me a kind of eggplant dish my mom used to make at home all the time. It is basically made up of charred eggplants but lookwise it is so similar. Will try for sure :)

  8. I love researching old recipes, because you never know what you’re going to find out. During my last trip home to the Southern U.S. I had a great time talking old recipes with my sister, grandmother, and great aunt- there was a lot of controversy and laughter at that table. Strange Flavor Eggplant looks tasty and how fun that you contributed to Lonny!

  9. I adore eggplant. I’ll keep this one tucked away for August/September when we have eggplant on the farm. I love the name, but then again ‘strange’ things always fascinate me!

  10. The way you put the “strange flavor” in small font below the eggplant really made me giggle. This could be the best recipe title ever?? Kind of like naming Iceland Iceland even though it’s totally green and beautiful.

    And lastly, love the Lonny spread!!! yayyy!

  11. I looked through about fifty 80′s cookbooks and couldn’t find a single “Strange Flavor Eggplant” anything. :-( The closest I came is an early 90′s Moosewood recipe for Asian Eggplant Dip which looks like the result might be something like your recipe. If you read about Barbara Tropp, she would have been the farthest from racist-y. :-)

  12. I just bought that chair from DWR so I hope you didn’t steer me astray.

  13. Louise- you looked through fifty 80′s cookbooks to verify my claims?! That is some serious commitment. I assure you they exist, when I come across them again I will send citations. And I was never worried Barbara Topp was racist-y, I don’t think she named the recipe.

    Jeffrey- I’ve had those chairs in my dining room for the last 3 years and I love them so much. Also, a very popular bar in Chicago uses them, and they have held up beautifully to nightly crowds of drunk people. I think you’ll be happy.

    Amelia- Oh no, is Iceland racist, too?!

  14. Flipping through some Chinese cookbooks, it seems like maybe “strange flavor” is a term for something that features a lot of Sichuan pepper. Maybe that’s something that got lost in translation, since Sichuan pepper is hard to get on this side of the ocean.

  15. Nope. Nothing racist about the name. I’m Malaysian Chinese and it really is called that. ‘Gwai way’ in Mandarin. Over here it’s usually ‘Strange-flavoured fish’ and it truly tickles your taste buds.

  16. Tim, it wasn’t that I doubted your claims, but I have > 600 cookbooks dating way back to the present. For more than 25 years we did a monthly dinner party always around some theme and I couldn’t remember seeing this dip. After I pulled out a few books, it became my mission. :-)

  17. lol maybe you should call it ‘potentially racist eggplant’? Pretty much anything with eggplant in it is delicious.

  18. Food AND home design?? Will you please move to Seattle so we can hang out?? It will be fabulous, I promise :) XX Jessica

  19. “Strange-flavor” is a translation of the Chinese words 怪味 (guaiwei), which refer to a compound flavor originated in Sichuan cuisine. Perhaps “exotic-flavor” is a better translation in my opinion.

  20. Chair arrived. Great recommendation.

  21. Yay! Glad you like it, Jeffrey. I have six of them, so I feel pretty committed to the chair. It is elegant, right? Happy sitting!

  22. Yeah, Simon above is right. The name (guai wei) refers to a bizarre combination of sweet, salty, sour, and spicy flavors (i.e. all the soy, sesame, black vinegar, chili, and Sichuan peppercorns found in the original versions). The most well-known iteration of the flavor combo is “strange flavor chicken”; the eggplant dip sounds like a Western bastardization, though no less tasty I’m sure.

  23. Did you use chinese eggplant or italian eggplant?

  24. I love Lonny mag! Everything in it is so beautiful like the collage of your fav things. =)

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