Meatless Monday: Indonesian spicy eggplant

Chop and sauté glossy purple eggplant, then toss it with a bright, spicy tomato-red pepper sauce. The dish is versatile; serve it over rice or stir the sauce into potato salad for a meat-free dinner.

The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook
Unusual flavors, like lime leaves and sambal oelek- an Indonesian chile-based sauce- give this eggplant dish a touch of tropical flavor.

This year, Indonesia celebrates 67 years of independence from the Dutch who colonized them for 350 years.

So I decided to spotlight a simple Indonesian dish that slips into the fall lineup effortlessly, its main ingredients comprising eggplant, tomatoes, and red bell pepper. Terong belado, or spicy eggplant, is usually eaten hot with rice. In fact, the basic tomato-red pepper sauce is oh-so versatile. To make this dish with egg, called telor belado, fry whole hard-cooked eggs and toss them in the same sauce. Other ideas: drape the sauce over grilled meats, or stir it into potato salad.

Fortunately, a glossy purple eggplant and a rainbow pint of cherry tomatoes miraculously appeared in my vegetable box the week I decided to make this dish. My mum prefers the long, slender Chinese eggplants as she thinks the Western eggplant has skin that’s tough as leather. But I know better, she’s just used to them. We’re all creatures of habit.

If you’re still unsure about this beautiful dish redolent with the floral notes of kaffir lime leaves and the sassy sweetness of sun-ripened tomatoes, think of it as a ratatouille with a touch of the tropics.

Indonesian spicy eggplant (Terong Belado)

 Time: 30 minutes

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

1 large Western eggplant, or 3 Chinese eggplants

3 tablespoons canola oil, divided

2 cloves garlic

2 Asian shallots, roughly chopped (1/3 cup)

1 large red bell pepper, roughly chopped

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved, or 1 large tomato, chopped

1 teaspoon sambal oelek, or to taste [editor's note: sambal oelek is a chile-based sauce]

kaffir lime leaves

1 small white or yellow onion, chopped (3/4 cup)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon sugar

Cut the eggplant into 3- by-3/4-inch strips. Cut the eggplant lengthwise in half. Cut each half into three horizontal layers. Keep them stacked and slice down the vertical into four strips. Cut the strips into half crosswise.

Swirl 2 tablespoons of oil into a large skillet or wok. When the oil shimmers, add the eggplant and sauté until the skin wrinkles and the flesh turns translucent and browns, about 5 to 6 minutes. Or do as my mum does and steam it. (You can cover the eggplant with damp paper towels and microwave on high for 2 to 3 minutes.) Remove to a plate and set aside.

In a small food processor, pulse the garlic, shallots, bell pepper, and tomatoes briefly until they form a paste that looks like oatmeal. It will be a little watery but you want confetti sized bits to remain. We’re not making gazpacho here!

In the same skillet or wok, swirl in the last tablespoon of oil, and heat over high heat. When it shimmers, add the paste, sambal, and lime leaves. Fry until you can smell the red pepper and lime leaves, 4 to 5 minutes, and most of the juices have evaporated. Reduce the heat to medium, mix in the chopped onion, and simmer briefly. Add the salt and sugar and taste. The balance of flavors depends on how sweet your pepper and tomatoes are. Adjust if necessary.

Simmer for another 2 minutes until the onion is cooked but still crunchy. Add the eggplant strips and let them roll around in the sauce until well coated.

Serve hot with rice as part of a multi-course meal, or let cool to room temperature.

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