Sunday, March 02, 2008

Vegetarianism and Eggplants

That looks like a lot more cheese than it really was.

When you live in a rural area, seasonal food means food that is in season in your area or in areas not too far from you. Living in a metropolitan area, where you have far greater access to food from all over the world, means that you see food that is in season someplace else on the globe. If I see a ton of cheap avocados, it means they're in season in Mexico or Puerto Rico, not Japan.

I'm not sure where most of the eggplants in Tokyo are coming from, but recent shopping trips would seem to indicate that they're in season somewhere. They're cheaper than usual and plentiful. To be honest, I'm not a serious eggplant fan, though I do enjoy them on occasion and in moderation. The only vegetarian lasagna I ever made (for a friend who didn't eat meat) was made with eggplant and it turned out extremely well.

This particular friend worked several "busy seasons" as a temp. at my former office and was one of the few people aside from myself who brought her own lunch. She likely had little choice because vegetarian options are painfully limited in Japan. Even when you ask and are told there's no meat in something, there is often some sort of meat in it. It seems that the question is often interpreted by the Japanese to mean, "are there big hunks of meat in it". They'll tell you there's no meat in the dish if it's something which has minced meat in small quantities or meat broth. The notion of being a vegetarian is relatively alien in Japan. I do several lessons where I talk about food with students and the idea of giving up meat sounds incredibly odd to them. Invariably, they see the option as being one based in health benefits rather than ecological ones or philosophical beliefs.

A rare site in Tokyo, a vegan restaurant. It's not so rare as it once was, but it's still pretty rare.

Getting back to this former co-worker though, it was often the case that I'd ask this particular friend what she'd brought for lunch and one day she said "aubergine stew". Since my second language was not French (it was Spanish) and Americans rarely say "aubergine", I asked what that was to which my (Australian) boss replied that it was what snooty people called "eggplant." He was just kidding, of course. She wasn't the least bit snooty, and fortunately was a good sport.

All those bags full of eggplants in the shops and some serious boredom with my usual lunchtime options inspired me to pick up a bag of small ones and try to put them to use. The result is something which is pretty simple and I mainly mention it in my blog to inspire others to consider enjoying the same thing, not because it's an uncommon combination.

This recipe has the virtue of being very cheap and fast. I had an hour before a lesson and watched the clock while I made it. The "hard part" takes about 6 minutes with a further 5 minutes or so in the toaster oven.

Open-face Eggplant Sandwich:
  • 1 small eggplant
  • 1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • salt, pepper, garlic powder to taste (I used 1/2 tsp. salt, 1/4 tsp. pepper, and 1/2 tsp. garlic powder)
  • olive oil as needed for frying
  • 1/2 tomato (sliced)
  • cheese as desired (Japanese natural "mixed" cheese is fine)
  • French bread (or any other type of crusty bread)
Slice the eggplant into about 8-10 discs of about 1/2 inch (or a bit less). Place the flour, salt, pepper, and garlic into a small bag (or a shallow bowl) and mix. Place the eggplant slices in the bag and shake to coat. They should be a bit moist and the flour will stick, but if they are dry, you may need to give them a rinse and shake off the excess water to get the flour mixture to adhere to them. Heat a small skillet over medium flame and add about a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Fry the eggplant slices in the oil until they are browned on one side then turn them over and brown the other side. You may need to add more olive oil to the pan when you turn over the eggplant as it will absorb the oil.

While the eggplant is cooking, cut off a 5 inch section of French bread and slice it in half length-wise. Trim the top and bottom if necessary to make them sit flatter on the toaster oven tray. If the bread is tilted, the cheese will run off as it melts.
Place the bread slices on the tray and put 4 or 5 cooked slices of eggplant on each piece. Top with slices of tomato. Season the tomato with salt then sprinkle the tops with cheese. It's tidier if you heap the cheese in the center so that it doesn't melt off the edges when you toast it. Toast (or broil) the sandwich until the cheese melts.

Note that it's very important to salt the tomato before adding the cheese or it'll taste rather bland and it doesn't work quite so well if you salt the cheese when the sandwich is done. Also, the topping for this sandwich is very soft so it's extremely important to use some good bread with heft and firmness.


Emsk said...

What a lovely recipe! I'll be trying it out. Thank you, Shari.

We say aubergeine in the UK, which is the same as French. I don't know about the Spanish word, but in Italian it's melanzana, so there's quite a variation.

Being veggy is pretty hellish here in Japan admittedly, and my students are also amazed when I tell them I don't eat meat. However, I've been thinking of starting a veggy cafe in the future and all of them think it's a great idea. They wouldn't adopt vegetarianism or veganism at home, but they're all in favour of trying out something different.

I don't think I could go wrong if it was in the right place. Fancy a chef's job? ;)

Shari said...

Emsk: I think you're absolutely right about the Japanese being open to eating vegetarian food because they are interested in sampling different types of food (and aren't squeamish about much of anything except root beer and licorice).

I do wonder how restaurants do in Japan. I've seen a lot of variation in customer numbers - places that always have lines and places that seem to never have customers. Buzz seems really important and once a place gets a reputation, folks seem to line up.

Heh, I'd never make it as a chef in any type of cuisine. My food is too pedestrian. ;-)

Anonymous said...

A no waste alternate way to slice a baguette (which is what I think you mean by "French bread?") is to slice it at an angle. Usually, I slice bread with the knife 90° to the cutting board, but if you tilt the knife to 45° or even 30° and slice off a heel, you can then cut large oval-shaped slices to whatever thickness you like for sandwiches by cutting more slices at the same angle. You can slice the the heels into mini-sandwich slices with one end thicker than the other- if you turn every other slice 180° you have a sort of normal looking but mini sandwich. It's also easier (than the thin slices of crust) to grate the bigger chunk of the heel to make breadcrumbs if that's what you want for another recipe.

Is "berenjena" the word in Spanish for eggplant?

EdieS said...

Hey Shari-

Thank you for the delicous sandwich recipe. Another great recipe for eggplant sandwiches is to sautee wih a bit of oil, a chopped tomato, some Kalamata olives and a bit of black pepper. This make a great filling with a sprinkle of cheese toasted on top. Very similiar to your recipe, but a bit creamier and tangy-er.

I love eggplant, I must say, and my favorite favorite recipes is steamed eggplant with miso dressing.

I find it kinda surprising that most Japanese think my bouts of vegetarianism is weird, since Japanese Food is filled with really good vegetarian dishes. (Right now, I should be going through a Lenten fast- but oh well...!)

Cookie said...

Hi Shari, I'm new to commenting on blogs, and I don't know how to comment on your Google RSS feed. Anyway, I found a browser ( that has a sidebar option that has all your RSS feeds. It updates which sites have new articles/entries, and when you scroll down the rss page it marks it as viewed (unless you choose otherwise) you can also save the articles you're particularly fond of. ^_^ Try it out. Sorry I didn't explain it so well. :) I'm not that tech friendly and have trouble putting names to certain internet functions (and at times make up my own). :P Oh yeah, I loved this recipe, Will make it during the weekend :D

Kanagawa G said...

I saw this on TV so it HAS to be TRUE!

Casey Kasem was a vegetarian and had a clause in his contract that the character "Shaggy" couldn't eat meat on the cartoon "Scooby-Doo Where Are You?"

Everyone knows that Shaggy always seemed to have the munchies and he and his buddy Scooby could put away quite a bit of food. Apparently the meaty-looking sandwich fillings were actually eggplant, a veggie substitute to satisfy Casey's contractual stipulation.

Anonymous said...

can u let me know where that vegan restaurent is?

Kanagawa G said...

Make that "Casey Kasem IS a vegetarian"- present tense.

Chris said...

Switch that nasty vegetable with some black angus and I'm ALL over that!!!

Anonymous said...

ive never had eggplants with bread before. in fact ive never been adventurous with bread, only have the usual pb with jam or cheese toast..

guess i should try out new interesting sandwiches!

Tlvsn said...

Nice blog! Eggplants are in season here in Japan, all my neighbors have them growing.