Monday, July 30, 2012

Terong terasi, varkashert : Umamified Indonesian Eggplant

A predominant salt flavoring in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines is some form of fermented shrimp paste.  In contrast to other parts of Southeast Asia, the shrimp paste in these countries, especially Malaysia and Indonesia tends to be more heavily fermented and often dried. In Malaysia it is known as belachan, in Indonesia as terasi and in the Philippines as bagoong.  To develop the flavor even further, it is often fried or toasted before being used in a dish.   The smell, to most Westerners, is nothing short of revolting, but it is an essential element of the cuisines and adds an umami richness to the dishes where it is used.  (One day I will write a more extended discussion of fermented fish and seafood products and their role in Southeast Asian cooking.)

You can think of this particular dish as a Southeast Asian version of Imam Bayildi, a Turkish dish that means "The Imam Fainted." The most common version of the Turkish story is that an imam married a woman who was renowned and a good cook, and as a wedding gift they received enough olive oil to last for years.  She made him a dish of eggplant, onions, tomatoes and garlic cooked in olive oil, and he liked it so much that he asked her to make it every night.  She did, but after a week she said she could no longer make it because she had run out of olive oil, so the imam fainted.   In the Southeast Asian variant, the wedding gift is shrimp paste, and the imam faints when this runs out.   I'll take the olive oil. 

This having been said, something good is missing when you leave the shrimp paste out of the dish. This variant is intended for vegetarian, those who want to observe kashrut, who have shellfish allergies, or who may not want to be knocked over by the smell of shrimp paste when they cook it.  I substitute a deep red barley miso for the terasi and it is not bad.  Even better than that.  It is also quite easy, so try it.

Indonesian-style Eggplant with Red Miso Sauce

  • 1 to 1 1/2 pounds fresh, firm eggplants (I use 3-4 medium sized ones;  Japanese-style are also nice but should be prepared differently, see below)
  • 6-8 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 hot, fresh red chili peppers
  • 1 tablespoon dark red barley miso
  • 1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 shallots, peeled, halved and sliced
  • 1/2 cup water
  1. Prepare the eggplants:  If using conventional or medium-sized eggplants, quarter them lengthwise and cut the quarters into one-inch chunks.  Place on a baking sheet lined with foil and sprayed with oil spray, and broil about 5 inches from the heat for 10 minutes.  Make sure not to burn them.  Turn off the broiler, and turn the oven to 350 and back for 10 minutes.  They should be tender, but if not, leave them in the turned off oven and they will soften considerably.  (You could also cook them on a grill.) 
  2. If using long, thin Japanese eggplants, slice them into 1/2 inch disks and saute them on medium-high heat in a large nonstick skillet, sprayed with oil spray, until tender and browned, about 10-15 minutes.
  3. While the eggplants are cooking, using a mortar and pestle pound the garlic with the chilies and a pinch of salt until you have a paste.  Add the miso and pound a bit until almost homogeneous. (If you don't have a mortar and pestle, you can use a mini-chopper or make a paste on a cutting board using the side of a broad knife or cleaver.)
  4. After the eggplants are tender, heat the oil on medium in a nonstick skillet and add the shallots.  Saute until soft and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.
  5. Add the paste from the mortar and stir about 2 minutes until the aroma changes, indicating that the garlic is no longer raw.
  6. Add the eggplant and stir until it is well incorporated.  Add the water and cook on high until most of it evaporates and you have a thick sauce and the eggplant is tender.  If it needs more time, add a bit more water and repeat.
  7. Serves 4-6 as a side dish and goes very well with rice.

No comments:

Post a Comment