This is one of the relatively old-fashioned dishes which are becoming more and more difficult to find in Thailand these days. Your chances of finding this salad at Thai restaurants outside Thailand that cater primarily to westerners are also somewhat slim. It’s a shame. Roasted eggplant salad represents a whole other side of the traditional Thai cuisine which, in my incredulously subjective opinion, belongs to a higher, more sophisticated class to which the like of Pad Thai, Pad See Ew, or Rad Na, don’t even come close. So when my reader, Mary, requested this recipe, I was more than happy to oblige.
By the time I was born, even the most hard-core older traditionalists had long abandoned the archaic practice of cooking rice in a clay pot over a wood charcoal stove for all kinds of new and shiny Japanese electric rice cookers. My khun thuat (great-grand father) lived through the time of absolute monarchy and was an ultra-traditionalist, insisted we make rice the old way. Our family has, in many ways, been somewhat odd like that. But in this case, I was glad things worked out the way they did.
You see, back in the old days, to make a pot of rice, you would boil the rice in lots of water, pasta-style, in a well-seasoned clay pot. At the point where the rice is just short of being completely cooked, the starchy water would be drained off and reserved. Once the charcoals have been almost burned down to embers, the pot would go back on the stove and remain there until the rice is completely rid of excess moisture and becomes fragrant and fluffy.
It’s during this last stage of rice cooking that khun that‘s cook would take advantage of the low coals to roast all the ingredients that either needed to be roasted or charred before being cooked with other ingredients* or was to be served roasted. According to his cook who later became my nanny, eggplants would often be roasted in this manner and used as a dip accompaniment or in a salad, this salad. The long, green eggplants—similar to the long purple Japanese eggplants—would be placed right on the low coals. The eggplants would be flipped over a few times to ensure the flesh was evenly and thoroughly cooked until melting soft inside the charred skins.
The charred eggplants would then be put on a plate and left to cool, covered. The steam would help loosening up the skins making the peeling easier.
Being so young at the time, I don’t remember any of this. My memories of khun thuat are faint and a bit random. I do remember visiting him often, all of us sitting around dinner table, placed in the middle of his orchid greenhouse, and the adults talking and laughing. I remember a very old man always with a smile frozen on his face. I remember his living room in the middle of a traditional Thai teak wood home. There was a Japanese-style garden. There was a pond with one gigantic fish who liked to eat whole bananas.
It takes other people to give me a more complete picture of what transpired during those visits. All eyewitnesses have testified that while waiting for dinner, khun thuat and I would always go off on our own for a private chat over our aperitif—the warm rice “milk” (น้ำข้าว) that was strained off from the rice pot during cooking.
Rice milk was such a common thing—”lowly” even—that many households would just feed to their dogs. But khun thuat and I loved it. We would sip our rice drinks and talk about everything.** According to one witness, I often brought up critical life problems like the time when my favorite doll was left in the rain and rediscovered with her hair all kinky, matted, and uncomb-able. Khun thuat would listen and patiently help solve every problem for me.
It was a fellowship of two friends, they say. One was a nanogenarian who had outlived most of his natural teeth. The other was a pre-schooler who was going through an aesthetically-unfortunate phase of random tooth eruption and shedding. Both tooth-deprived people found common joy in creamy rice milk and soft foods. At dinner, I went for plain rice congee and khai jiao. Khun thuat went for rice and this eggplant salad with tender boiled eggs and a light sprinkling of pulverized dried shrimp.
Thai Roasted Eggplant Salad with Poached Shrimp and Hard-Boiled Eggs
2 lbs long purple Japanese eggplants or green Louisiana eggplants (the smaller, the better)
4 large eggs, boiled, peeled, and quartered
1/4 lb large shrimp, peeled, deveined, and poached in salted water
2 tablespoons dried shrimp, pulverized in a coffee grinder or with a mortar and a pestle
2 medium shallots, peeled and sliced very thinly
About one tablespoon’s worth of palm sugar (If you don’t have it, use brown sugar.)
4 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2-3 fresh bird’s eye chillis, thinly sliced
Cilantro leaves, optional
- Placing them right on low charcoals, flipping occasionally, until the skins are thoroughly charred and the eggplants are soft.
- Place the eggplant on a foil-lined baking plate set about 8-10 inch beneath the oven broil heating element and broil them on high until the skins are charred and the insides are soft.
- Place the eggplants on a foil-lined baking sheet and roast them in a 450°F oven until the insides are soft.
*There are several dips and condiments in the Thai cuisine that require roasted or charred garlic, shallots, etc.
**In retrospect, now it makes perfect sense why, according to Mom’s account, my preschool teacher reported that my vocabulary was strangely dotted with archaic Thai words used during the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras.