It’s still summertime, but I can feel the cooler days of fall coming, especially in the evenings when the temperature is dropping just a bit more than it did a few weeks ago. This is one of the best times of the year for food lovers, especially if you love vegetables.
Eggplants (aubergines) are in high season now and will be around for at least another month or so. While you can get them year-round, they are at their best of course in their natural season.
This is a classic Japanese way of serving eggplant, and it’s really easy. All you do is to slowly roast the eggplant until tender, either in the oven or on the stovetop in a frying pan, then serve with a glossy, salty-sweet dengaku (田楽）sauce. I could eat this every day, with a bowl of plain rice and some cold mugicha  to wash it down.
Serves 1-2, depending on what else is served at the same meal.
For the dengaku sauce:
Prepare the eggplant, according to the type:
If you’re using a big round one: Cut off the blossom end, and reserve to use as a decoration.
If you are using a big long one (e.g. the standard Italian or American type eggplant): Take off the blossom end (optionally reserve for use as decoration) and cut the eggplant into thick slices crosswise, or into half lengthwise. (Note that I don’t recommend this type of eggplant for this, since the skin tends to be rather tough. Choose one of the other kinds if you can.)
If you’re using a small thin Asian-type eggplant: Cut in half lengthwise, keeping the blossom end on for decorative purposes.
Rub the cut surfaces of the eggplant with a little sesame or olive oil. Roast it in an oven at 200°C / 400°F, cut side down and tented with some loose foil until tender (the time depends on the size of the eggplant, but it’s about 10 minutes for a small eggplant, 30 minutes for a big eggplant, with the slices somewhere in between). It’s tender when you can pierce through easily with a skewer. You can try cooking the eggplant in a toaster oven too, but I haven’t tested this myself so you’re on your own as to timing and so on.
Alternatively, you can slow-roast the eggplant in a dry frying pan. Place cut-side down in a non-stick pan, and cover loosely with some aluminum foil. Pan-roast until tender over medium-low heat, turning once. This method is especially suited for small eggplant - it takes 5-10 minutes and doesn’t heat up the kitchen as much as the oven method.
While the eggplant cooks, prepare the dengaku sauce. Combine all the ingredients in a small pan, and set over low heat. Mix the sauce vigorously with a wooden spoon, until the sauce turns glossy. Adjust the consistency by adding drops of water. It should not be too runny, but should flow thickly, rather like a thick ketchup.
Serve the eggplant warm, coated with sauce.
Dengaku (田楽 - the characters mean ‘rice paddy’ + ‘harmony’ or ‘music’ or ‘play’) is a classic miso based sauce. There are many variations, but the basics are the same: miso with sweetener, a little oil for adding gloss, and sake and/or mirin for added flavor. Sometimes a little soy sauce is added, or dashi stock instead of water, or even MSG. My version comes from my mother, of course, and is quite simple.
You can make dengaku sauce in quantity and keep it in a closed jar in the refrigerator, but I don’t bother since it’s so easy to make fresh. If you do make it and store it, warm it up a bit before using.
Dengaku sauce is terrific on other grilled or roasted vegetables, firm tofu, blanched konnyaku , and so on. It’s a bit sweet for my taste for serving on meat and fish, but you can try it out!
Add spice to dengaku-sauced foods by sprinkling on some shichimi tohgarashi (7-ingredient pepper, see Essential staples of a Japanese pantry ).
These are the eggplants I used for the version at the top of the page, bought at my favorite farmer’s market in Provence :
You might be thinkng, “But Japanese eggplants are small and thin and cute!” Well the standard ones are, but in Kyoto (the home of Japanese haute cuisine) there is a variety of eggplant that is similar to the one in the photo called kamonasu （賀茂茄子）- big, round, and quite thin-skinned. Here’s a photo of one .
There’s nothing like the combination of juicy, soft eggplant with that sweet-salty, thick dengaku sauce. Wait, I think I need to go to the market today…