Why It Works
- Salting the eggplant draws out excess moisture.
- A potato-starch slurry thickens the sauce just enough without making it gloopy.
- An optional oven method (see introductory text) means you don't have to deep-fry.
Excerpted from The Food of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop. Copyright (c) 2019 Fuchsia Dunlop. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
The following recipe, called yuxiang qiezi in Chinese, is a Sichuanese classic, and one of my all-time favorite dishes of any cuisine. More than any other dish, for me it sums up the luxuriant pleasures of Sichuanese food: the warm colors and tastes, the subtlety of complex flavors. Like other fish-fragrant dishes, it is made with the seasonings of traditional fish dishes: pickled chiles, garlic, ginger and scallions. But unlike the more illustrious fish-fragrant pork slivers, it derives its color not from pickled chiles alone, but from pickled chiles combined with fava beans in chile bean paste. The sauce is sweet, sour and spicy, with a reddish hue and a visible scattering of chopped ginger, garlic and scallion.
The dish is equally delicious hot or cold. I usually serve it with a meat or tofu dish and a stir-fried green vegetable, but it makes a fine lunch simply eaten with brown rice and a salad. The eggplants, deep-fried to a buttery tenderness, are delectable. I have eaten this dish in restaurants all over Sichuan, and recorded numerous different versions of the recipe. The following one will, I hope, make you sigh with delight. If you want to scale up this recipe for a party, rinse and dry the salted eggplants, toss in a little cooking oil and then roast for 15–20 minutes in a 425°F (220°C) oven until golden. Make the sauce, but don’t thicken it with starch; instead, pour it over the roasted eggplants and set aside to allow the flavors to mingle. Serve at room temperature.
- 1 pound 5 ounces (600g) eggplants (1–2 large)
- Cooking oil, for deep-frying
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Sichuan chile bean paste (see note)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
- 10 tablespoons (150ml) hot stock or water
- 4 teaspoons superfine sugar
- 1 teaspoon Chinese light soy sauce
- 3/4 teaspoon potato starch, mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water
- 1 tablespoon Chinkiang vinegar (see note)
- 6 tablespoons thinly sliced scallion greens
Cut the eggplants into batons about 3/4 inch (2cm) thick and 2 3/4 inches (7cm) long. Sprinkle with salt, mix well and set aside for at least 30 minutes.
Rinse the eggplant, drain well and pat dry with paper towels. Heat the deep-frying oil to around 390°F (200°C) (hot enough to sizzle vigorously around a test piece of eggplant). Add the eggplant, in two or three batches, and deep-fry for about 3 minutes, until tender and a little golden. Drain well on paper towels and set aside.
Carefully pour off all but 3 tablespoons oil from the wok and return to medium heat. Add the chile bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant: take care not to burn the paste (move the wok away from the burner if you think it might be overheating). Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry until they smell delicious.
Tip in the stock or water, sugar and soy sauce. Bring to a boil, then add the eggplant, nudging the batons gently into the sauce so they do not break apart. Simmer for a minute or so to allow the eggplant to absorb the flavors.
Give the potato starch mixture a stir and add it gradually, in about three stages, adding just enough to thicken the sauce to a luxurious gravy (you probably won’t need it all). Tip in the vinegar and all but 1 tablespoon of the scallion greens, then stir for a few seconds to fuse the flavors.
Turn out onto a serving dish, scatter over the remaining scallion greens and serve.
Wok or Dutch oven
You can find chile bean paste and Chinkiang vinegar online at The Mala Market.