Despite its translation, fish-fragrant eggplant actually contains no seafood or meat products whatsoever. It gets its name from the combination of hot, sour, and sweet flavors that are typically served with fish in its native Sichuan. Smoky eggplant is stir-fried until tender, then tossed with a quick sauce flavored with chilies, black vinegar, sugar, ginger, and garlic for a hearty, flavor-packed dish that comes together in one wok with minimal effort. Some of the best vegan recipes are ones that weren't adjusted to be vegan, but just happen to start out that way.
There were a lot of ups and downs during the long trip my wife and I took through Asia last summer, particularly during the two days we spent hiking on Emai Shan, one of the four holy Chinese Buddhist mountains located in China's central Sichuan province. No, I mean that literally. Lots of ups and downs. Endless flights of stairs leading us through lush valleys, monkey-infested bamboo forests, breathtaking vistas, the longest expanses of no-contact-with-people we experienced in China, and the odd impromptu bodega peddling warm beer and instant noodles.
Adri and I had made the mistake of doing zero planning before heading up for the hike and it was about three hours into our two-day descent that we realized that carrying our full load (that'd be a 65-liter pack on our backs and a 20-liter day pack on our fronts) was not the best way to avoid intense pain during the 30 kilometers and 2,000 meters of vertical shift. We hobbled into a small Buddhist shrine on the side of the mountain as the sun started to set, paid the modest fee for a simple room, shrugged off our packs with a thud, and shuffled our way to the kitchen where a cook was busy preparing a hot meal for the dozen-odd fellow travelers who'd stopped for the night.
Man oh man, was it delicious. All of the food was 100% vegetarian (as much Buddhist food tends to be), and all of it extraordinarily simple. A rice porridge with leaves of sweet lettuce. Cabbage that had been charred ever so slightly, giving the whole thing a sweet, smoky aroma. Tender green beans steamed then stir-fried with garlic, chilies, a touch of salt, and nothing more. And platters full of Yu Xiang Qie Zi—fish fragrant eggplant.
Adri and I housed down two platters of the stuff. I'm pretty sure we snapped like wild wolf puppies at a guy who tried to move the platter from our side of the table's iron grip. I will not apologize: It was the only thing fortifying enough to get us through the second (and as it turned out, far more difficult) day of hiking ahead.
These days, we have to hike up a hill to get to our home in San Francisco, but at least it doesn't leave us wanting to remove our limbs and hit the "restart" button on our bodies. Still, that eggplant is one of my favorite dishes of all time.
I decided to perfect it for myself.
Pressing Issues Regarding Eggplant
The first step was figuring out which eggplant to use. Big ol' globe eggplants are way too big and watery. Smaller Japanese eggplants work, but in the end, tradition reigned and I went with long, slender, pale purple Chinese eggplants. They tend to collapse a bit less than their darker counterparts, giving you a meatier bite. They also have a slightly sweeter flavor that goes nicely with the hot and vinegary sauce.
Whatever eggplant you use, one thing's for sure: Simply cutting them and stir-frying them does not work. The eggplants absorb all the oil, leaving dry spots on the wok, which in turn allows the eggplant to stick and burn. Raw, untreated eggplants also take a long time to cook through, exacerbating the burning problem. Why is that?
It's because eggplants contain so much excess air, distributed within a spongy cell network. Air acts as an insulator, which means that heat travels through an eggplant very slowly. This is one of the reasons you always want to buy an eggplant that feels nice and heavy for its size: denser eggplants have less air and will cook more evenly with better flavor and texture.
So how do you solve this problem? There are quite a few techniques I wanted to test.
Almost all of the methods you hear about involve an attempt to break down the internal cellular structure of the eggplant either through heating or chemically with salt. In the past, I've used the steaming method for dishes in which the eggplant is going to be braised until fall-apart tender, like in this Braised Eggplant with Tofu dish. It's simple: Put the eggplant slices in a bamboo steamer set over a wok of simmering water and steam them for about 10 minutes until tender.
The problem is that without simmering in sauce, it's hard to get steamed eggplant to absorb much flavor. It also comes out really soft. Too soft for this particular dish.
Microwaving the eggplant until cooked through followed by stir-frying it works better. It completely breaks down cell structure while driving off moisture, giving you smaller, easier-to-fry pieces. But I find the pieces are actually a little too shriveled and concentrated when you use this method.
That leaves salting. Typically, salting takes place on dry land. You sprinkle the eggplants with a bit of salt, then let them sit until the salt pulls out excess moisture through osmosis, causing the cell structure to collapse. But I've also seen recipes that call for brining eggplant: soaking them in a salt water solution. This seems counterintuitive to me. Aren't we trying to get rid of excess moisture?
I decided to compare the two methods side by side, also testing them against eggplant soaked in unsalted water and plain, untreated eggplant as a control.
After their brief 10 minute soak in salt water the eggplant pieces did not look all that different. After drying them with paper towels and weighing them, I found that they actually lost a little weight during their soak. Osmosis would explain this: so long as the concentration of salt outside the eggplant is higher than the concentration of other solutes inside the eggplant's cells (1/4 cup of kosher salt for each quart of water worked), water from the cells should be forced outward in an attempt to reach equilibrium.
I cooked all four batches of eggplant using the same method in a hot wok with oil, cooking them until lightly charred on the exterior and tender throughout. Both the salted and brined eggplants cooked faster and browned better than their water-soaked or untreated counterparts.
"I may well start brining all my eggplant from now on, whether it's destined for a Chinese recipe or not."
And whaddaya know? The brined eggplant was actually the best of the bunch. It managed to brown and soften while still retaining a nice meaty bite. The salted eggplant came in a close second, but was not quite as easy to cook. Brining eggplant is also easier than salting: salting eggplant requires a big rack to lay the slices out. Brined eggplant is good to go with just a single bowl. I may well start brining all my eggplant from now on, whether it's destined for a Chinese recipe or not.
Turning up the Heat
With the eggplant pre-treated, the next step is cooking it. The wok is where you want to go here, preferably a well-seasoned carbon steel wok.
Eggplant is one of those vegetables that really benefits from a nice, deep, char. Plain eggplant is bland. Mushy, watery, insipid—it's no wonder so many people dislike it. Well-charred eggplant, on the other hand, is smoky and sweet. There's really not much to it: just cook the eggplant in plenty of oil over moderate heat, turning it every once in a while, until it's completely tender throughout and well charred on the outside.
I like to take a fairly orderly approach to this, systematically flipping all the pieces so they're on the same side and turning them sequentially until they're browned all over. But a lazier, stir-and-shake approach will work as well if you're not quite as obsessive detail-oriented as I am.
My Chilies are in a Pickle!
With the eggplant addressed, I moved on to the sauce, which is pretty simple, but has a few issues to address. The base of the sauce is hot and sour. A combination of vinegar mixed with chilies, Sichuan chili-bean paste, sugar, wine, soy sauce, and just enough cornstarch to bind it into a glossy glaze (too much and it turns gloppy).
I started off by making the dish with fresh Thai bird chilies but something wasn't quite right: Instead of the general heat that I want coating each piece of eggplant, I was getting sharp, concentrated bursts of heat. Traditionally, the dish is made with pickled chilies, and it turns out they're essential for flavor: Pickled chilies spread their heat around the whole dish.
They're available in many Chinese grocers, but they aren't common in a standard supermarket. The solution is to simply pickle your own.
It's a really fast process: Just heat up vinegar on the stovetop, pour it over sliced chilies, and let them sit for about five minutes. You can even do it while your eggplant is brining.
The only other issue to address is the black vinegar. Again, a common ingredient in Chinese markets (look for "Chinkiang vinegar" or "black vinegar"), but not so in a standard supermarket. It has a very mild, almost sweet and woody flavor to it. I tried a number of substitutes—red wine, sherry, white wine—but found that the best was to use plain white vinegar to pickle the chilies, then a splash of cheap Balsamic vinegar in place of the black vinegar if you can't find it. Balsamic vinegar in Chinese cooking may sound weird, but trust me on this one: it works well.
To finish up our sauce, we're going with the classic Chinese trifecta of garlic, ginger, and scallions, with a very heavy hand on the ginger.
In his testing, Daniel Gritzer found that chopping garlic by hand is the best way to mince it for most applications. But for this specific case, the microplane works just fine. The garlic cooks so fast that it doesn't have time to develop that acrid, sharp flavor that can come out in garlic-heavy applications where it's more prone to burning.
So: eggplant gets brined, chilies get pickled, eggplant gets charred, aromatics are added, sauce is stirred in, everybody inside the pan gets happy for a minute or two, then everyone outside the pan gets even happier as they down it.
This is what you're looking for: eggplant that is tender but holds its shape, a sauce that is glossy but not gloppy, and flavor that is hot, sour, and sweet all at once.
Now if only we had a Buddhist temple on the side of a gorgeous mountain to eat this from as we observe the tranquility of life, the universe, and everything else, our lives would be complete.