Eggplant steals the ethnic food scene

Used in dozens of countries, this humble ingredient appears on all sorts of ethnic menus.

The English call them 'aubergine.' In Italy, nearly every trattoria serves 'melanzane.' And in Chicago, eggplant plays a subtle, yet scene-stealing role on several ethnic menus - whether it's sliced, chopped, fried or sautéed.

It's hard to resist the flavor and texture of this underappreciated ingredient.

Eggplants are all over Middle Eastern kitchens.

Take Taboun, for example, a kosher restaurant in West Rogers Park. They roast and puree it, mixing in a little mayo, to make the silkiest, smokiest baba gannoush in town.

But eggplants - large and small - are also on the menu at Cafe Orchid, a family-run Turkish restaurant in Ravenswood. They show up in both main dishes and appetizer spreads.

"Famous Turkish dish, a lot of dish make from eggplant. Maybe like, you can do 50, 60 different dish from eggplant," said Kurtulus Serpin, Cafe Orchid.

Patlican Musakka is a standard appetizer of chopped eggplant with tomatoes, peppers and onions while the Uskudar features long slices of eggplant, which are first salted to pull out moisture, then rinsed thoroughly.

"When you leave the salt water two hour, eggplant get more tasty; no spicy or something, and when you eat, melt in your mouth," said Serpin.

What he means is those salted and fried eggplant slices absorb the rich sauce that results from the sautéed lamb and peppers, tucked within the slices.

A vegetarian entree might also include baby eggplants - pan-fried and stuffed with an assortment of vegetables, pine nuts and dill, then topped with mozzarella cheese and baked; homemade tomato sauce provides earthy contrast.

Another country making use of the eggplant-cheese combination is Italy.

At Tufano's Vernon Park Tap - near Little Italy, in the heart of the UIC campus - the eggplant parm has been on the menu for the past 80 years. They begin by slicing eggplant on a meat slicer, for uniform thickness. Dredged in flour, then eggs, the slices get fried for just a minute or two. In a deep dish, the slices are layered with some tomato sauce, slices of mozzarella cheese, grated romano and dried oregano. Once four layers of each have been added, more gravy goes over the top, plus a bit more romano.

"After you put it in the oven, it really sucks it up - the eggplant - and the mozzarella and that's what makes it so succulent I guess," said Joseph DiBuono, Tufano's Vernon Park Tap. The portions are thick and satisfying, each one a testament to DiBuono's grandparents' recipe.

"It's one of the original dishes we'll have and we'll never take it off," said DiBuono.

There are also smaller Japanese eggplants, pea-shaped Thai eggplants, and let's not forget about the French dish that helped make eggplant famous a year ago - ratatouille.

6339 N California Ave
Chicago, IL 60659
(773) 381-2606

Cafe Orchid
1746 W. Addison St.
Chicago, IL 60613
(773) 327-3808

Tufano's Vernon Park Tap
1073 W. Vernon Park Pl.
Chicago, IL 60607

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