Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Eggplant, or If My Dad Were Dave Chappelle

If my dad were Dave Chappelle,
Eggplant would serve as his Grape Drink.
The humor would be hard to sell,
But he could make it in a blink.
"White people, they have Healthy Food,"
He'd joke, "and some of that is valid.
But I like veggies purple-hued--
And what the **** is salad?"
With purple vegetable in tow,
He'd be on Comedy Central late
And soon, his audience would know
Just how to cook that Chinese plate.
For just one line'd explain it all,
The dish his daughter loves a ton.
"That's the ingredients," he'd call,
"Sugar, soy sauce, purple."  Done.
Finally...after days of sightseeing, snorkeling, and skydiving in Cairns, back to internet access for a few hours!  I'm only feeling a little apologetic for the hurried writing and less-than-brilliant pictures, because I'm posting these things WHILE ON VACATION IN AUSTRALIA.  So if you haven't already, let the expectation-lowering commence.

I'm confused.

It all started in 2008, when I went to my first free vegetarian cooking class hosted by Columbia's Bhakti Club.  I'm pretty sure I started attending because that was the school year I wanted to go without spending any money on food, but I quickly became enamored of the club and its hosts, Dave and Pandit, two incredibly friendly and kindhearted Hindu monks who genuinely delight in sharing their food and company with students.  They remind me of the true definition of "good people."  They never try to push their beliefs onto club members, and they are inconceivably welcoming even to the hungry college kids that get to cooking classes late and just line up for the free meal at the end.  At the time, I felt I had to do something to counterbalance that increasing number of moochers (yes, a bit paradoxical in the context of my free-food thing)...and so, with a nod to Dave and Pandit's compassionate vegetarianism, I started eating vegetarian on Tuesdays, the days of our cooking club meetings.

To this day, I still try to take a brief moment to think grateful thoughts before eating meals, as we did before every Bhakti dinner.  But Tuesday vegetarianism gave rise to other experiments in eating compassionately.  I started by eating meat only when I really craved it, then realized I hardly ever craved any meat besides seafood.  I even went vegan for three months, but with that, I realized that I sometimes needed animal products for my health and happiness, and that veganism couldn't be my long-term plan.  Most recently, I've gone back to eating meat only when it's necessary and I can't find veggie protein substitutes, but with the added condition of it being wild-caught or humanely raised.

As there aren't many affordable free-range options at home, this has resulted in my unintentionally going pescatarian since July 4th.  But before I left for Cairns last week, in the tradition of classic Chinese dinners, I prepared a hot dish and my great aunt prepared a cold one; the hot dish was my dad's "famous" eggplant, and the cold one was free-range beef.

Thus began my brief but puzzling encounter with beef and conscience.  I was completely fine with eating free-range animals in theory, but when it came time to do it, I hesitated.  I ate some sprouts and green onions.  I ate bowlfuls of my own eggplant until my relatives joked that I should leave some for them to try.  Then, my great aunt started pointedly urging me to eat some of her dish, and it was a matter of courtesy and pride, and I could hesitate no longer.  So I tried it -- ten thin slices of traditionally prepared Chinese wu xiang niu rou ("five-spices beef") -- and it was damn good.

I went back to munching on eggplant as soon as I'd had a sufficient taste of the beef, which is, I think, why I ended up not feeling badly at all about eating the meat.  It was as delicious in moderation as it would've been in excess.  I have yet to figure out exactly where to go from here, but I think I'll be able to steer clear of any more deer-in-the-headlights food dilemmas as long as I keep following my own morality...and appreciating the meat I do eat.  Plus, the supplementary eggplant dish I copied from my dad was filling, homey, and so simple it hardly requires a recipe.

Daddy's Famous Eggplant
a ridiculously simple Chinese tradition

  • 1 eggplant
  • 3 tbsp dark soy sauce
  • 1.5 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1.5 tbsp ginger root, chopped
  • 1/8 cup olive oil


Wash the eggplant, and cut into pieces -- diagonally, so much of the flesh of the vegetable is visible.

Heat the olive oil in a wok over medium heat.  Add the ginger and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add the eggplant.  Stir and cover.  Checking and stirring occasionally, let cook until soft-but-not-too-soft, about 15 minutes.  Pour away any water that may have come out of the eggplant during cooking.

Add the sugar and soy sauce.  Stir and taste...clearly, you might adjust quantities based on your tastes and the size of the eggplant.

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