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The term “Asian eggplant” is used to refer to a large number of aubergines, or eggplants, which also go by the alternate names of Chinese, Thai, or Japanese eggplant. Asian eggplants tend to come with more variety than those bred in Europe, and range in size, shape, and color quite radically. They are used extensively in Asian cuisine, and can also be used in Western food. As a result of the popularity of Asian eggplant, many grocery stores have one or two varieties available. In areas with large Asian communities, a wide range of Asian eggplants are available.
Calling the fruit an “Asian” eggplant is a bit misleading, since all eggplants are technically native to Asia. However, when the berries were imported to Europe, farmers selected for specific varieties and a divergence between Asian and Western eggplants began to be observed. Most Westerners are familiar with eggplant in the form of a rich purple oblong shaped berry with a slightly bitter flavor. Asian eggplant, on the other hand, is sweet and tender and comes in a myriad of guises.
Japanese and Chinese eggplant tend to be long and skinny, looking like purple fingers. White, green, and striated versions of these cultivars are also available. Thai eggplants, on the other hand, are more spherical, and they also come in a range of colors. Thai eggplant can also be very small, with one version looking remarkably like a chicken egg.
The natural sweetness and tenderness of Asian eggplant can turn bitter if the berries are left on the vine too long. As a result, Asian eggplant is usually harvested young and used promptly, since it can acquire bitterness in storage as well. When selecting Asian eggplant at the store or greengrocer, try to determine how old it is, and look for plump, glossy specimens with no signs of withering or soft spots. The skin of Asian eggplant can also be quite delicious, but make sure to wash the eggplant well to remove any traces of pesticides, fertilizer, or organic materials which may be present.
Asian eggplant can be stuffed, used in stir fries, or battered and deep fried, as in the case of tempura. Just like with Western eggplant, an Asian eggplant should be slit in half and salted before being cooked, unless it is being baked whole. Salt helps to draw out any bitterness, and also dries the berry so that it does not release excessive amounts of water during cooking. Leave the salt on for approximately half an hour before using.
Japanese eggplant is well suited for quick stir fries, while the larger eggplant is better used in all other, longer types of cooking.