I was so happy to hear from some of you who requested more Extra (Ap)petite recipes! I’d love to share more easy and flavorful favorites, along with tips on how to make them a little healthier. I admit, today’s dish is one I hesitated to post, since the resulting brown color is not the most photogenic. But we all know some of the better-tasting foods are not always Instagram-worthy! And this dish tastes even better in the summer when we grow our own eggplant, Thai basil, and hot chilis in our garden … but for now, you can find most of the ingredients at an Asian grocery store.
When I first had this at a Thai restaurant, I was hooked by the flavorful blend of salty, sweet, and spicy with the fragrant aroma of Thai basil. However, it came literally drenched in oil. Eggplant itself is nutritious, but in restaurants it’s usually fried (which preserves the purple color), or masked in thick breading. The way my mom taught me to cook it uses minimal oil, but you do lose the pretty color.
I’m all about customizable recipes, so here’s some potential adjustments to suit your liking. We use ground turkey, but you can also try ground or sliced chicken, ground pork, tofu cubes, or simply the eggplant alone (skip to the bottom of this post for modified instructions)! Vegetarians can experiment with more soy sauce and sugar instead of fish sauce, although this is a staple in most Thai dishes. I always use the long skinny Asian eggplants, but if necessary you could perhaps try regular eggplant – I’d peel the skin on those since it’s thicker. The only ingredient I wouldn’t omit is Thai basil, since it has such a unique flavor and aroma.
- 1 lb Asian eggplant (~3 large ones)
- 1/2 lb ground turkey
- 3 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1-3 hot peppers* depending on your spice level, sliced (avoid touching seeds with bare hands)
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce **
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce ** (not the same as regular or low-sodium soy sauce)
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/3 cup hot water, more if needed
- 1 large handful Thai basil leaves, roughly chopped
* I’ve tried jalapeños for milder heat, or birds-eye chilis as shown here which are pretty spicy
** I like Squid brand fish sauce, and “light superior soy sauce” by the brand pictured (not sure of the name in English!)
Step 1: Prepare a large bowl of cold water mixed with a spoonful of salt (I’m using a strainer bowl below). A salt water bath will keep your eggplant from browning right away, and will rinse away some excess bitterness. Cut eggplant into evenly-sized, approx. 1 inch sticks and place immediately into the salt water.
Chop your garlic, chilis, Thai basil, and get other ingredients in place while the eggplant soaks.
Step 2: Pour 1 cup water into a frying pan on medium heat and wait for it to simmer.
Step 3: Drain the eggplant of salt water, which will be a little brown. Rinse the eggplant off with more cold water and drain again. If you’re in a hurry and don’t care about excess brown color (I usually don’t), then you can skip the soaking & rinsing in Steps 1 & 3!
Step 4: When the water in the pan comes to a gentle boil, add the eggplant and cover with a lid. Let it steam, covered, for about 3 minutes until partially cooked and semi softened. We will finish cooking it with all the other ingredients, but this quick steam helps it cook more evenly with no oil! The eggplant will start to lose its purple color as it cooks and softens.
Step 5: Remove eggplant with a slotted spoon into a separate bowl. Save about half a cup of the hot water into a measuring cup, and pour out the rest.
Step 6: Combine fish sauce and soy sauce in a small bowl. I wouldn’t do this too far in advance, because fish sauce is incredibly pungent on its own! (most of the strong smell cooks away into saltiness) Add some cooking oil to your pan, and lightly brown your meat with a rough spoonful of the fish/soy sauce mixture.
Step 7: When the meat is almost cooked, sauté in the garlic and chilis for a minute.
Step 8: Gently stir the partially-cooked eggplant in along with the sugar, the rest of the fish / soy sauce mixture, and about 1/3 to 1/2 cup hot water. The amount of hot water depends on how saucy you want the dish and how much water stayed on your steamed eggplant. Cook until the eggplant is tender (try one), being careful not to overcook as it’ll become mushy!
Step 9: Stir in Thai basil, quickly remove the pan from heat, and serve. Basil loses it’s flavor when cooked, so add it in right before you’re ready to eat!
NOTE: If you are skipping the meat/protein, this dish becomes a lot simpler! Follow steps 1 and 3 above (but not 2) to soak and drain the eggplant. Start cooking by lightly sautéing the garlic and chilis in a little oil over medium heat.
Stir in all the uncooked eggplant, sugar, fish & soy sauce until combined and cook for another minute. Add about 3/4 cup hot water, cover with a lid to “steam” for ~ 3 minutes. Remove lid and continue cooking until eggplant is done – careful not to overcook! Finish with Thai basil.
Let me know if you give this a try! I’d also love to hear any variations on this or how you prepare eggplant!