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Originally published August 23, 2013 at 12:32 PM | Page modified September 3, 2013 at 6:36 PM

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Variety is the name of the eggplant game, says Nancy Leson

The prettiest, to Nancy’s eyes, are the Indian eggplants; some no bigger than an egg.

Seattle Times food writer

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I’VE YET TO meet an eggplant I didn’t like. If you don’t count the mushy gray stuff-in-a-jar my Russian relations ate when I was a kid.

The fruit — yes, it’s a fruit! — comes in so many shapes, sizes and hues you may not always recognize it as eggplant; even if you live here, where our many Asian supermarkets and “ethnic” groceries offer varieties that go beyond the wide-hipped Mediterranean mamas built for baba ghanoush and eggplant parmigiana.

“What is that?” asked the woman behind me in the checkout line at Uwajimaya, pointing to my bag of sturdy green striated orbs, some as small as a fig, others as large as an apple. “Thai eggplant,” I told her, before trading cooking tips: “Green curry paste, coconut milk, lemon grass, Thai basil, chicken.” She countered with a recipe for the slender, purple-skinned Japanese version in her basket: “Steamed with miso. Better for you!”

When shopping for eggplant, inspect for bruises and feel for heft. Buy only what you’ll need, as it doesn’t store well. Nor does it like refrigeration, though extras will keep several days in the crisper, wrapped in paper towels to absorb moisture.

Oh, yeah. Absorption. While eggplant sucks up oil like a sponge, it’s the Zelig of produce, taking on the flavors — and adding rich texture — of whatever it’s paired with: say, capers, kalamatas and sweet peppers for Italian caponata. Or lamb, onion, tomato and dried limes for Persian khoresht-e-bademjan.

The prettiest, to my eyes, are the Indian eggplants; some, in fact, no bigger than an egg. You might split and stuff these dark-purple orbs, or peel, roast, spice and mash them to prepare baingan bharta, a popular dish in Seattle’s Indian restaurants.

Any purple-skinned eggplant may be used in the following curry recipe from S.H. “Skiz” Fernando, Jr., the go-to guy who took Anthony Bourdain on a “No Reservations” spice tour of Sri Lanka. It’s a flavor powerhouse, and the ingredients list, while long, should not dissuade you. Served hot, or cold, it tops my list of eggplant favorites.

Aunty Manel’s Special Eggplant Curry

Makes 4 servings

1 pound eggplant

¼ teaspoon ground turmeric

Oil for deep-frying

3 cloves garlic

2-inch piece ginger

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

½ cup water

2 tablespoons oil

1 medium onion, sliced

2-3 fresh Thai or bird chilies, sliced

1 sprig fresh curry leaves

2-inch cinnamon stick

3 cloves

1 tablespoon Madras curry powder (see note)

1-2 teaspoons cayenne powder

1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds, ground

½ cup unsweetened coconut milk

Salt to taste

1. Wash eggplant and cut into 2-inch strips. Rub with salt and a dash of turmeric powder.

2. In a large frying pan, deep-fry eggplant until golden brown. Drain on newspaper (or paper towels).

3. Blend garlic, ginger, sugar, salt, apple cider vinegar and water in a blender or food processor to form a paste.

4. Heat the 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet. Saute onions, chilies and curry leaves until onions are translucent. Add cinnamon stick, cloves, curry powder, cayenne powder and ground mustard seeds and cook 1 minute.

5. Add blended garlic-ginger mixture and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and add fried eggplant, coconut milk and salt. Toss well and simmer 3-5 minutes until slightly reduced.

— adapted from “Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking”

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times’ food writer. Reach her at Ken Lambert is a Times staff photographer.

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