Of all the amazing, unctuous, stewed, baked, rolled, grilled or fried preparations that we clever apes have come up with for eggplant, this one is my favorite hands down. Yes, I love the tender texture and subtle flavor of the vegetable itself, but here, like the tofu, it offers itself equally as a textural component and vehicle for a silky, unmistakably garlicky sauce.
You have likely had a version of this at a Chinese restaurant. I've had it with varying degrees of spiciness, garnishes ranging from extra chilies, basil, green onion, and even peanuts, and varying ratios of sauce to vegetables. But one Thai/Pan-Asian restaurant I used to visit in DC inspired me to add Kaffir Lime leaf to the dish resulting in a tiny tweak that I like very much!
A few notes below about our key players here:
Firstly, eggplant. Don't fear it. Try this recipe, research, try all sorts of eggplants like long Japanese, tiny bulbous baby eggplants, stripey Graffiti types, big monster purple Globe eggplant, etc. If you don't have a texture issues with this versatile veggie, then you are ready to experiment. Consider this an entry level recipe, but many are so very easy, and have nothing to do with large amounts of oil, something home cooks often worry about, as eggplant CAN soak up copious amounts of fats. But, as you see here, it's not necessary to get a good result.
Secondly, Tofu: If you love tofu, you are set! If you don't, keep trying (haha). The only things to remember here are 1) Use a heavy bottomed pan in order to keep a constant medium to medium high temp on the tofu. 2) As with all proteins, allow the first contact to stay put until browning has occurred and the proteins can release from the surface of the pan, a good rule for perfect browning whether you are using non-stick surfaces or not.
Secondly, Kaffir Lime leaves: Known by several other names, but commonly just Kaffir Lime in the U.S., the zest, and especially the leaves of this variety of lime have a uniquely bright and powerful fruitiness. Like a wine connoisseur sensing some unlikely sounding hint in a glass of wine (cat urine?), I will tell you that these lime leaves have some element that reminds me of Fruit Loops, but in a good way! If you have had them, you know they are special. You will find them at most Asian grocers, either fresh or frozen or at the neighborhood grocer. If you get them fresh, pop them in a freezer, in a zip-lock and they will last quite a while. You can pull out a few as you need them.
Worth noting is that while I searched for a few tidbits about this lime type that I might not have known, I found out that it is in need of a name change! See below. Hence I have used "Lime Leaf" in my recipe, which will still be universally understood when you are in search of them at the market. I am all for consciously evolving language. Learn something new every day.
I like using oil with FLAVOR. Unrefined peanut is one of my favorites and can stand a fairly high heat saute or pan-fry. Until you try it, I cannot tell you how much FLAVOR using unrefined oils can add to your dishes. Just be aware of the smoke points of different oils. Virgin coconut is high, Peanut is medium high, and Olive oil is low to medium. Read labels before grabbing something off of the shelf so you know you are getting an unrefined oil. Some may be filtered or non-filtered. I use both though filtering may remove some solids that can burn in the cooking process.
I made this version of garlic sauce eggplant fairly mild. Kick it up with more or hotter chilies if you like. I wanted the garlic and lime leaf to be the main attraction in this version, but I totally understand if you are a fellow chili freak. Do what you have to do with my blessing.
To achieve a superior garlicky goodnes, garlic appears in two parts of the preparation. Three hearty cloves go into the saute at the very end, becoming just soft through. Then, when the sauce is added, there is the raw grated garlic to punch it up even more. Double-decker garlic.
As for splattering, there is help! One indispensable tool is the mighty splatter guard! It comes in different sizes (here covering my 13 inch pan perfectly) and save you quite a bit of clean up after pan frying or high heat saute maneuvers.
The pan fry of the tofu comes before the saute of the eggplant. The tofu gets nice and crispy without being deep fried. It's crunchy firmness is a nice counter to the eggplant's softer texture. Firm or extra firm is good, but I feel extra firm is a bit too hard. Look at that tofu!
The benefit of a large saute pan is that you can do several things at once without having to remove items. Above you see the cooked eggplant and green onion just staying warm while I have cleared room, added a touch more peanut oil, and am sauteing the garlic, ginger, chili, and lime leaf just until the garlic is cooked through. Then the tofu come back in and the sauce is added. The sauce will quickly thicken and become glossy. Serve immediately!
Fried Eggplant and Tofu with Garlic Sauce and Lime Leaf
- 1 Lb eggplant
- 7 Oz firm tofu
- 1 bunch green onions
- 3 Tbsp plus 1 Tsp unrefined peanut oil
- 3 large garlic cloves plus one medium clove
- 1 Tsp grated/minced ginger
- 2 large or 4 to 5 small lime leaves
- 1 small chili -spiciness and size to taste
- 4 Tbsp water
- 3 Tbsp shoyu or tamari soy sauce
- 1 Tbsp mirin
- 1 Tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 Tbsp maple syrup
- 1 Tbsp corn starch
First get a pot of your favorite rice going. I will leave that up to you.
Next, slice the stem ends off of the eggplant and then divide it into rounds approximately 1 1/2 inch thick. Lay each piece flat and trim off alternating 1/2 inch portions of the skin with your knife, creating a striped pattern. You may also stripe the eggplant with a veggie peeler from top to bottom before you cut them. I like to do this to reduce but not altogether omit the skins, which can sometimes be tough. Now cut each cylindrical chunk in half across the diameter, lay them down and and slice triangular wedges (see picture for approximation). Any other even, 1 1/2 inch long, 1/2 inch thick shape will do as long as they are similar sized to each other. Set these aside.
Drain the tofu and pat with a towel to remove excess moisture. Tofu often comes in 14oz containers, so this is half of a standard supermarket tofu block. Again, create pieces that are roughly 1 1/2 inch long and 1/2 inch thick. Set the tofu aside. Wash the green onions and cut one inch pieces from the white end up to where the green end splits and becomes thin. Set these aside. Slice the tops of the green onions to use as garnish or for another recipe. If you use them as garnish, don't go hog wild as I find the raw onion overtakes the sauce. Put them on your tacos the following day.
When you have the eggplant, tofu and onions prepped slice three large cloves of garlic about 1/8 inch thick. Save the medium one for the sauce preparation. Grate or mince 1 Tsp of ginger. Select the lime leaves for the recipe. Two large leaves or up to 5 smaller leaves depending on size. The leaves often appear to have two leaves as one so count attached as one. Cut the chili you have chosen into thin slices. Place the garlic, ginger, chili, and lime leaves in a small bowl and set aside.
To prepare the sauce combine the following in a small bowl and mix: 4 Tbsp water, 3 Tbsp shoyu or tamari, 1 Tbsp mirin, 1 Tbsp rice vinegar, 1 Tbsp maple syrup, 1 Tbsp corn starch. Set aside.
Heat 3 Tbsp of the peanut oil in a large, heavy bottomed skillet over medium high heat. If the tofu sizzles as soon as it hits the oil, the pan is ready. Add all the tofu and cook 4 to 5 minutes on each side, until golden. Remove the tofu from the pan and set aside without removing the remaining oil. Immediately add the eggplant to the pan. Make sure all the pieces are making contact with the pan as you occasionally toss them. After 5 minutes, add the green onions and continue to brown all sides of the eggplant and sear the onions for another 5 minutes. The eggplant should be tender through but not mushy or tough.
Now move the cooked eggplant and onions over to one side of the pan. In the free space, add 1 Tsp peanut oil, the garlic, ginger, chilies, and lime leaves and cook them in the oil, stirring often, until the garlic is just softened but not browning. Now add the tofu back to the pan and toss all the elements together well. Reduce the heat to medium and add the sauce, quickly stirring it into the vegetables and tofu until everything is bubbling, glossy and thickened. Remove the pan from the heat and move the contents to a serving dish immediately to prevent the sauce from reducing too much.
Serve the eggplant and tofu with rice. Garnish with extra chilies and/or green onions if desired. Enjoy!
Yield: 2 dinner servings
This dish will keep for 5 days refrigerated.