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Food We Love: Making basil eggplant with Arun, one of Chicago’s top chefs

Welcome to Food We Love, our Sun-Times video series featuring stories about Chicagoans family food traditions, secret recipes, special ingredients and unusual favorite dishes.  Each week we’ll hear a new story about food and family and learn some amazing recipes that you can try at home. Our host is Chicago journalist Linda Yu who loves cooking at home, as well as exploring new restaurants throughout the city.  

We’re proud to welcome Arun’s Thai Restaurant as the presenting sponsor.

Today’s episode: Cooking basil eggplant with Chef Arun

Join Linda Yu every week for cooking and conversation on Food We Love.

Join Linda Yu every week for cooking and conversation on Food We Love.

Cooking basil eggplant with Chef Arun

“I make food for the people. Arun makes food for kings.” That’s what a friend of mine, who owned five Thai restaurants, told me years ago when I said I was going to Arun’s. The fact is, Arun may make food suitable for a king’s taste, but he loves feeding everyone.

Arun Sampanthavivat (try to say THAT three times!) started life on a rubber plantation in Thailand. His family stressed education, so Arun got degrees from a university in Bangkok, Thailand as well as in Hamburg, Germany, then Tokyo, Japan and finally came to Chicago for Asian Studies at the University of Chicago. All perfect knowledge to start a restaurant, right?

The path from academia to chef

It was actually a group of Chicago friends who thought so because of Arun’s own cooking. They decided to open a restaurant together, convincing Arun that Chicago needed to learn about very high quality Thai food. Arun agreed to join them, but before the restaurant opened, everyone else had to drop out for various reasons and Arun was left alone. He persevered… opened Arun’s in Albany Park in 1985, and except for closing briefly last year for renovations has been wowing Chicagoans with his incredible food for 33-years.

From the first day to this day, Arun has been self-taught. He tells me the story of how he learned about food, sitting beside his grandfather. Arun was the first male grandchild, so he was welcomed to eat meals with his Chinese grandfather who had a very discriminating and specific palette. Grandfather had an arranged marriage with a Thai beauty and though they lived in Thailand, grandfather always refused to eat Thai food. Perhaps in defiance, his Thai wife refused to eat Chinese food. So, the family had two separate kitchens and little did Arun know, that started him on a lifetime of appreciating the nuances of different Asian cuisines.

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In Arun’s kitchen surrounded by his long-serving kitchen team, Arun showed me how to make dumplings (with a calamari mousse filling) for a delicious salad and a dish featuring deep purple skinned Japanese eggplant, combined with vegetables, hand formed shrimp balls and peppers.  (Arun also taught me how to make a delicious shrimp curry dish which we will share with you in another episode of “Food We Love.”)

Arun is back in charge of his kitchen these days, after welcoming some partners who specialize in Thai restaurants, including Kittigron Lirtpanaruk and Paul Schermerhorn.

Together, they are bringing back the Arun’s that’s listed in the New York Times bestseller book, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die“.  In that book, Arun is given this compliment: “great chefs go to him to be dazzled.”  For more on this dazzling chef and his recipes, watch the video on the Sun-Times website.

Download and print Arun’s recipes for summer salad and for basil eggplant.

Arun's Summer Salad with Calamari Dumplings

  • Servings: 4 people

A delicious salad with calamari mousse dumplings.

Photo: Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Mixed Salad Ingredients

  • 2 cups mixed salad
  • 6 lemon balm leaves
  • 6 wild arugula leaves
  • 2 stems water parsley
  • 2 sheets wonton skins
  • 1 cup corn oil

Sesame-Soy Dressing Ingredients

  • 1 cup light Japanese soy sauce
  • 3-4 tsps. white vinegar
  • ½ cup dashi liquid (2 tsps. dashi powder, ½ cup water, 1 tsp. Mirin rice wine or Japanese sweet wine and one slice of lemon rind)
  • 1 tsp. sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1 tsp. sesame oil
  • ½ tsp. lemon rind, grated

Calamari Dumplings Ingredients

  • 4 sheets wonton skins
  • 2 medium-size pieces of calamari, blended into smooth paste
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. white pepper
  • ½ tsp. sesame oil
  • 1 tsp. scallions, minced

Wrapping pureed calamari in wonton skins to make dumplings. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Wrapping pureed calamari in wonton skins to make dumplings. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Directions

  1. Wash and pat dry mixed salad. Keep refrigerated until serving.
  2. In skillet of hot oil fry wonton strips until crispy, set aside.
  3. In a small to medium bowl, combine all salad dressing ingredients, except Dashi liquid.
  4. Combine all Dashi liquid ingredients in a small pot. Cook over a low fire until ingredients begins a slight boil. Remove from heat and set aside.
  5. Blend calamari and season with salt, pepper, sesame oil and minced scallion. Fill wonton with mixture, wrap (two pieces is an individual serving) and boil briefly (1-2 minutes or until wonton floats in water). Strain, coat lightly with regular corn or sesame oil, set aside.
  6. Arrange mixed salad on serving plates, dress with sesame soy dressing, top with calamari dumplings and adorn with scattered fried wonton strips.

Arun's Basil Eggplant

  • Servings: 4 people

Deep purple skinned Japanese eggplant, combined with vegetables, hand formed shrimp balls and peppers.

Photo: Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Ingredients

  • 2 eggplants, diced
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • Corn oil, as needed
  • 2 tsps. shallot, minced
  • 2 tsps. cilantro stems, minced
  • ½ tsp. white pepper (black if preferred)
  • 2 pieces red finger hot peppers, chopped
  • 2 tsps. fermented black beans
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 tbsp. fish sauce
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 cup sweet basil leaves
  • ½ cup scallions, cut lengthwise into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 tbsp. red sweet pepper, shredded

Directions

  1. Cut eggplant into 1-inch thick pieces.
  2. Dust and shake pieces with all-purpose flour to coat.
  3. Deep fry in hot oil about 1 minute, set aside.
  4. Blend shallot, cilantro, white pepper, red finger hot peppers and fermented black beans into coarse paste.
  5. Over a medium fire heat 2-3 tbsps. of oil in skillet. Cautiously, add paste and water. Stir fry quickly, bringing out aroma.
  6. Gently stir in eggplant, then season with fish sauce and sugar.
  7. Add sweet basil leaves, scallion and red sweet pepper.
  8. Transfer to serving plate.

Enjoy!

Coming soon in another episode of “Food We Love,” Arun shows Linda how to make a prawn curry dish.

 

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Watch more “Food We Love” episodes

We hope you’ve enjoyed this segment of “Food We Love with Linda Yu.” Check the links below to watch Linda’s other #foodwelove videos. Each one has a great story plus recipes for you to try at home. You can also follow Linda on social media to get the latest on her CST series.

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