Tortang Talong (Filipino Eggplant Omelette)
I read culinary histories and cook my way across the world in the COVID-19 moment, when I don't know when the next time I can travel to another state, let alone another country, will be. I know that I could travel to my parents, my extended American family, if it was an emergency, but I can't say the same for my family in Israel or Prague. I feel so deeply for all the families pulled apart geographically right now, for everyone living in some form of diaspora, not knowing if or when we can be together again. In a more abstract sense, I feel isolated from the world. Food is such an accessible avenue for building connections beyond yourself and the communities you grew up in or inhabit. It is a way to connect with older generations, with our heritage, with local and global histories. The more I explore the cuisines of the world, the more I am reminded of the ways that people, that cultures, are connected. I hate to sound overly trite, but I think this way of eating—whether it is learning through cooking or just enjoying takeout from immigrant-owned restaurants—is critical to my psychological wellbeing right now, just reminding myself of the worlds outside my head, my house, my Zoom meetings.
The foods of cultures and countries outside of our personal experiences can seem alien and bizarre—that's where the idea of "Exotic" comes in to food and ingredients. Non-Asian Americans may be confused about how to eat a mangosteen. Canned peas were an experience delicacy in Soviet Russia. Western-style white mushroom chicken soup and red borsch were trendy "exotic" Western foods in Hong Kong in the 1990s. In a funny full-circle kind of way, my paternal grandparents could not fathom how to eat the historically very Jewish artichoke thistle when my father first served it to them for Passover in 1994. But then there are foods that taste almost universal—brothy chicken soups, omelettes, meatballs, noodles. Though pho ga and chicken soup with matzo balls are not the same, but they share something familiar.
Tortang Talong felt like a totally delightful "discovery" to me because it wasn't really new at all. Eggplants have such a Jewish character to me, but of course they are beloved by other cultures too (even if many Americans find them "slimy" or "bitter"). Wild eggplants are indigenous to India and have been cultivated across Asia for centuries. Arab (and possibly Jewish?) traders brought cultivated species from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. Frittata-like egg dishes are popular in Jewish, particularly Sephardi/Mizrahi cuisine, because they are cheap and pareve (pareve meaning neither meat not milk, so in the laws of kashrut you can have eggs with either). Tortang Talong is homey like Israeli-style shakshuka to Persian aubergine omelette to Lebanese herb omelette, but it is also something different. This recipe is pretty neutral in flavor; you can serve it with a Filipino spicy-sour sawasan sauce as I did, or use the Filipino method as a way to shake up other familiar egg dishes. Try adding some za'atar or adjika or any other type of seasoning that goes well with eggplant and/or eggs.
This recipe makes four medium or six small fritter-sized eggplant omelettes, which will serve 2-4 depending on how hungry people are. I used schmaltz (chicken fat) as a cooking fat, which adds umami, but you can use vegetable oil for a vegetarian version. The eggplants cook quickly and get very smoky on a grill, but you can cook them on a gas flame on your stovetop or even the oven broiler for a similar result.
4-6 medium-small eggplants, such as Indian eggplants, fairy tale eggplants, or small Japanese eggplants
neutral oil such as sunflower, peanut, or avocado, for brushing the eggplants
2-3 tbsp schmaltz or lard, or substitute neutral cooking oil
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/2 a small red onion, chopped
salt, to taste
pepper, to taste
dipping sauce and white rice, to serve
For the dipping sauce:
3 Thai chilies, chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
2 tbsp cane vinegar
Preheat a grill to high heat (or set an oven broiler to high).
Use a fork to poke holes in each of the eggplants. Rub them with some neutral oil.
Grill the eggplants for 5 minutes on each side, until the skins are burnt black and the insides of the eggplants are soft and tender. Set aside to cool slightly.
Combine the dipping sauce ingredients and set aside.
Beat the four eggs together along with a sprinkle of pepper. Toss in the chopped garlic and onion.
Peel the eggplants, leaving the stems intact. Use a fork to soften the flesh; you want the eggplant flesh fanned out a bit so it will absorb the egg, but you do not want it completely mushy, or it won't hold together when you cook it. Drop the eggplants in the egg mixture and let sit for at least a minute.
Heat 1 tbsp schmaltz over medium heat. Lift up one of the eggplants and place in the pan. Pour an extra few spoonfuls of the egg/onion over the eggplant and sprinkle with salt. Flip over when it starts to brown, 1-2 minutes, then cook on the other side for 1-2 minutes. Egg should be just set and brown and crispy around the edges.
Repeat with each of the eggplants.
Serve with white rice and dipping sauce.