There's an elusive flavor I've been trying to figure out for a while. It's a caramel flavor I've been noticing in food from several Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. I thought the flavor was from soy sauce, so I researched types of soy sauce exhaustively. I have three or four types in my pantry, though, and none of them were quite right.
Then I heard about Black Rice or Chinkiang Vinegar. It was described as having a caramel undertone that tasted closer to balsamic vinegar than white rice vinegar. I bought some, opened the bottle, took a whiff, and...vinegar. Just vinegar. So I tasted a few drops on a spoon, and then I could taste the caramel. Once I mixed it with some soy sauce, I caught the flavor I had been chasing.
When I made the Green Curry Rice Bake the other night, it made so much that we ended up having it two nights in a row. We had it with some sliced mango the first night, and I paired it with this eggplant the second night.
Spicy Thai Eggplant
1 cup onion, thinly sliced
2 chinese or 1 globe eggplant, about 1-1/4 pounds
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons black rice vinegar or balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes or to taste
1/4 cup basil leaves (purple Thai basil if you have it), cut into thin strips (not shown in the picture)
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a skillet with a lid. Add the onion.
While the onion is cooking, slice the eggplant on the diagonal into 1/2-inch slices. Once the onion is tender, push it to one side of the skillet. Add another tablespoon of canola oil and swirl around in the pan. Drop a slice of eggplant onto the skillet and immediately flip over, so that there is oil on both sides. Continue with the eggplant slices until the skillet is full but not crowded. Add a tablespoon of water into the pan and cover with a lid to hold in the steam. Cook for 3 minutes.
Turn eggplant over, add another tablespoon of water and steam-fry for another 3 minutes. Poke the center of the eggplant slices with a fork to make sure they are very tender. Remove the onions and tender slices and set aside in a serving dish. Cook any slightly raw slices for another 2 minutes or until tender.
Repeat the steam-fry process with the remaining eggplant slices and place into the serving dish.
Sauté the garlic for a minute. Add the soy sauce, black rice vinegar, brown sugar and red pepper flakes. Stir to dissolve the sugar and heat. Pour over the eggplant and onion. Top with the basil and serve.
Serves about 5.