Nasu Dengaku_ (なす田楽) is a miso glazed eggplant dish popular in Japan in the middle of summer, when eggplants are at the peak of their season. Ironically, in a country that has dozens of varieties of eggplants, this dish is most often made with beinasu(米ナス) or “American Eggplant”. The thick meaty flesh of these bulbous aubergines provides the perfect creamy foil for the intensely flavorful dengaku sauce.
The eggplant is simply deep fried or grilled before being slathered in a thick coating of sweet and savory miso sauce. Potent, earthy and coffee black, hatchō miso is the miso of choice when making the sauce, but dengaku sauce can be made with almost any kind of miso. I’ve even seen eggplants glazed with a ying and yang contrast of half white miso and half hatchō miso.
While deep frying the eggplant yields a rich creamy eggplant that retains the purple color in the skin, sometimes I feel like something lighter with easier cleanup, which is why I’ve developed this pan-fry+steam method outlined below. I’ll be honest, if you want a rich, unctuous eggplant, skip steps 4-7 and just deep fry the scored eggplant halves, but if you want a low-fat, easy cleanup alternative, this method still produces a marvelously caramelized exterior with a light creamy interior.
Some of you may be wondering why I include both sake(rice wine) and mirin(sweet rice wine) in the sauce. The naturally occurring maltose (rice sugar) in good mirin is what gives the sauce some of its sweetness as well as its glossy sheen. If you can’t find quality mirin in your area (mirin shouldn’t have anything other than water, rice and koji in it), you can substitute a blend of sake and corn syrup (which is unfortunately how most cheap mirin is made these days)
- To make the dengaku sauce, use a whisk to mash together the miso, mirin, sake and sugar in a small saucepan, breaking up the miso before whisking until there are no lumps.
- Bring the sauce to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly so the glaze does not burn.
- Slice the eggplant in half lengthwise and then cut a cross-hatch pattern of slices, going about 3/4 of the way through the eggplant but without cutting through the skin. This not only helps the eggplant cook faster, it also provides little valleys for the dengaku sauce to penetrate the eggplant.
- Heat a sauté pan that has a lid until hot and then add the oil. Fry the eggplant with the cut surface facing the pan until evenly browned.
- Flip the eggplant over and then add 1/4 cup of sake, quickly closing the lid to capture the steam. Steam until the sake is gone.
- Flip the eggplant back over and then add 1/4 cup of water. Cover quickly and continue steaming until a toothpick passes through the eggplant easily. If the eggplant is still too hard in parts, add a bit more water and continue to steam.
- Remove the lid and allow any excess water to evaporate.
- Transfer the eggplant onto a plate and slather the cut-side with dengaku sauce. Garnish with scallions and ginger and serve.