There is no doubt that Tokyo can be a very expensive place to eat. There are more Michelin starred restaurants there than any other city on earth. Some might say with 88,000 restaurants and counting, that is not much of a feat - I don't know much about stats but I can say there is an abundance of incredible food wherever you turn. You can spend 400.00 on a meal .... or you can buy yourself a plateful of heaven for less than 10.00. One of the lovely things is that you don't have to search for good food, you pretty much stumble across it...as we did when we walked from the Kappabashi district toward Ueno. We decided to stop for a bite, slid open the door of a tiny shop on a corner, and ordered up some most delicious deliciousness. I had mabo nasu and don't recall at all what David ate - it was all a blur after my first bite. Mabu dofu has long been a go-to favourite in our house but I had never known mabo nasu. A small tragedy that, but all is well now. I was immediately determined to try my own version as soon as we returned home.
Well, we have been home almost exactly 48 hours and we had mabo nasu for dinner tonight. I was at the Farmer's Market this afternoon and my eye was caught by a bin of perfect, beautiful eggplants. I knew right away what I would do with them. So I bought them, came home and cooked up a pot of pretty awesome (modestly amazed) mabo nasu. No looking back now.
Nasu is simply eggplant - I would much rather call that elegant vegetable aubergine or nasu; eggplant simply sounds nasty to me and I am guessing that most children would agree. A rose by any other name may still smell as sweet but call an elegant vegetable by an unappealing name and you will have a hard time getting it past the lips of most little ones.
This recipe for mabu nasu is not exactly as we had it in Tokyo - I loved what I ordered for lunch that day but it was a bit heavy on oil. Yummy but perhaps not terribly wise. This is lighter - something you may have a hard time believing when you look at the amount of oil in the recipe :) I used coconut oil for much of the oil (you can use another oil if you prefer or can't find coconut oil - this for my dear friends in Japan where coconut oil is not to be found. I think I would choose grapeseed oil in that case). My choice of coconut oil was motivated as much by knowing that we are urged to get up to three or four tablespoons of coconut oil per day in our diets as it was by taste. You can adjust the heat by using more or less toban jan. Same with the chili oil. But do try the heat - it just isn't the same if it is bland.
2 medium sized eggplants
1 lb ground beef
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 Tbsp minced fresh ginger
1 onion, finely chopped
3 tsp toban jan (chili garlic paste)
1 Tbsp sugar (I use coconut palm sugar)
1 Tbsp mirin (optional)
1/4 cup red miso paste
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 1/2 cups dashi (or chicken broth)
4 Tbsp coconut oil
2 tbsp sesame oil
2 Tbsp cornstarch
Cut the eggplant into rough 3/4" 'cubes'. Heat 2 Tbsp of the coconut oil in a skillet, add the chopped eggplant and saute until lightly browned. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add another 2 Tbsp of coconut oil to the skillet and add the onion, garlic, and ginger to the pan; cook until the onion is beginning to soften. Add the ground beef and cook, breaking up the beef with the back of a spoon or spatula. When the pink almost gone from the beef add the reserved eggplant back into the skillet.
In a bowl combine toban jan, sugar, mirin, miso paste, soy sauce, salt, and dashi. Add to the mixture in the pan and stir gently. Bring to a simmer and let cook gently while you stir together the 2 Tbsp cornstarch with 1/4 cup of water. Stir the cornstarch mixture into the ingredients in the pan and allow to thicken. Stir in 2 Tbsp sesame oil. Add chili oil to taste - or pass it at the table.