Got My Eyes On Eggplant
Happy Sunday, Ono readers! Like many of you, I can hardly believe it’s already the middle of October and we are officially in what I like to call “pumpkin-spice season.” As we start to snuggle up with those seasonal lattes, we’ll also need a menu of cozy fare filled with hearty ingredients to help us embrace those warm, fuzzy autumn feelings.
Eggplant is up to the task, my friends, as this hunky ingredient lends itself to so many preparations. Though it is available year-round, the shiny, deep-purple “garden egg” is in its prime from late summer to early fall — meaning now is the perfect time to get the most flavor out of your favorite eggplant dishes.
This week, we’ll go beyond the classic Middle Eastern baba ghanoush spread and get to know some other rich, eggplant-based meals. But first, I’ll leave you with this fun fact about the vegetable … ahem, I mean, fruit. That’s right, eggplant is actually a fruit of the flowering nightshade plant, even though we think of it as a robust vegetable.
The eggplants most people are familiar with are large, round and egg-shaped, like those commonly sold at grocery stores, but here in Hawaii we’re lucky to have access to a wider variety of this delicious produce, especially when exploring our local farmers markets or dining at ethnic restaurants. It’s not uncommon for 808-dwellers to come across Chinese or Japanese eggplants, for instance, which are both longer and thinner in appearance, and perfect for slicing up into a plethora of recipes.
You can get your chopsticks out for some of these recipes at The Mandalay, which has served up an array of Hong Kong-style cuisine since 2006.
Resembling fluffy pillows of flavor, sliced rounds of eggplant are the main draw in Stuffed Eggplant with Minced Pork ($14.95).
According to Larry Chan, who runs the restaurant with his wife Linda, the dish has been popular because it is satisfying without being too heavy. He adds that diners may jazz up this selection with black bean sauce upon request. Located in the heart of downtown Honolulu, The Mandalay caters to business people as well as consulate members and politicians working at the Hawaii State Capitol nearby. And with handmade dim sum, prepared fresh daily from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., The Mandalay also is frequented by kamaaina families.
Across the board, customers can take advantage of the roomy two-story interior, complete with various private rooms, when looking to host a large gathering. With a maximum capacity of 320, The Mandalay is ideal for wedding receptions, holiday parties, birthday bashes, business meetings and the like.
1055 Alakea St., downtown Honolulu
One thing I’ve always loved about Zia’s Caffe is that it is vegetarian-friendly — meaning there are more than just one or two savory veggie-based creations to choose from, and vegetarians and carnivores alike can delight in these satisfying dishes. Seeing as the Kaneohe neighborhood eatery offers Italian-inspired cuisine, I had no trouble finding some vegetarian bites centered around eggplant, an ingredient that’s incorporated into many Italian dishes (caponata, anyone?).
With its high fiber content and loads of important vitamins and minerals, eggplant is an excellent substitute for meat in classic recipes. It’s perfect in Zia’s Eggplant Parmesan ($15.25) because it stands up to the Parmesan and panko breading, dousing of homemade marinara and melted mozzarella on top. The healthier alternative to chicken parmesan is served with basil-speckled spaghetti on the side.
During lunch, executive chef Jesse Kila puts a little eggplant magic into Roasted Eggplant Veggie Sandwich ($9.50), bedazzled with roasted red pepper, fresh julienned basil and big chunks of feta cheese. One of the best things about eggplant is that it is a culinary sponge of sorts, soaking up whatever flavors it touches. On this lovely sandwich, which is served on a fresh baguette from nearby Agnes’ Portuguese Bake Shop, the house-made balsamic dressing used for seasoning really pops against the eggplant.
“This is one of our more popular sandwiches,” shares Kila. “We have a lot of people coming and ordering that.”
As for pupus, diners may try Eggplant Involtini ($11).
The English translation of involtini is little bundle or roll, and in this appetizer, thin slices of eggplant are wrapped around spinach and herb ricotta, forming a vegetarian cannelloni of sorts. The bundles are topped with red sauce and oozing mozzarella, and once baked, the mixture is perfect for smothering on top of crostinis. Kila notes that some regulars enjoy this dish as their very own main course.
45-620 Kamehameha Hwy., Kaneohe