Why It Works
- Coating the eggplant in cornstarch, vinegar, water, and salt prevents browning and helps preserve its vibrant purple color.
- Cooking components in batches keeps the wok hot and prevents unwanted steaming.
One of my favorite ways to eat eggplant is in makheua yao pad tao jiao, a classic Thai-Chinese dish of stir-fried eggplant and minced pork. Flavored with tao jiao (fermented yellow bean sauce), garlic, fresh chiles, and licorice-tasting Thai sweet basil, the straightforward yet aromatic dish is often found at the curry and rice stalls known as khao gaeng, but it's also commonly made at home.
Wok cooking in Thailand is the result of Chinese influence and it's become prevalent in modern-day cuisine, although it's commonly associated with street food and restaurants, particularly the kind of cooking that requires intense heat to produce the smoky flavor known as wok hei. Although home cooks can achieve wok hei in their kitchens, I believe it’s best to leave that to high-powered restaurant wok burners. Instead, I think home cooks should focus on other stir-frying fundamentals, like cooking the ingredients for a dish in smaller batches then combining them at the end, which helps to prevent steaming your ingredients to mush.
For the eggplant, I coat slices in a mixture of cornstarch, white vinegar, water, and salt, which functions as a protective layer that prevents enzymatic browning, a series of chemical reactions that occurs in some foods when their cut surfaces are exposed to air. I then flash fry the eggplant in hot oil to soften it while preserving its vibrant purple hue. Once the eggplant is cooked, I brown the ground pork and toss it with garlic and chiles, then remove the mixture and set it aside to make the sauce—since a standard home stovetop burner can't bring sauces to a rapid boil like a wok burner would, removing the pork helps prevent it from overcooing. To complete the dish, I bring the umami-packed sauce made with tao jiao, oyster sauce, and soy sauce, along with water and sugar to balance out the flavor, to a rapid simmer, add the eggplant and pork back in, and cook everything together until the sauce is absorbed. Finished with Thai basil for an herbal bite, this dish pairs well with fragrant jasmine rice.
If you’re interested in doubling this recipe, I suggest cooking multiple batches separately. Don’t do it all in one go―this stir-fry pushes the limit of what I recommend cooking in a wok at once, especially on a home stovetop.
- For the Stir-Fry Sauce:
- 2 tablespoons (40g) Thai fermented soybean paste
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) oyster sauce, preferably Thai
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) Thai or Chinese light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon (3g) sugar
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) water
- For the Eggplant:
- 1 cup (240ml) neutral oil, such as vegetable oil, for frying eggplant
- 2 Japanese eggplant (about 12 ounces; 340g total), stemmed and cut crosswise on a bias into 1 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon (15g) cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) distilled white vinegar
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) water
- Kosher salt
- For the Stir-Fry:
- 5 ounces (150g) ground pork
- 5 small garlic cloves (25g), smashed and roughly chopped
- 2 to 3 fresh Thai chiles (2 to 3g total), stemmed and thinly sliced
- 1 packed cup (about 1 ounce; 30g) fresh sweet basil leaves (a.k.a. Thai basil)
For the Stir-Fry Sauce: In a small bowl, stir together fermented soy bean paste, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and water until thoroughly combined. Set aside.
For the Eggplant: Line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels. Set a strainer in a large heatproof mixing bowl, and set bowl on a heatproof surface. In a wok, heat oil over high heat to 400°F (205°C). In a separate large mixing bowl, combine eggplant, cornstarch, vinegar, water, and salt. Mix thoroughly with your hands until well-coated. Carefully add half of the eggplant to the wok and fry, stirring constantly, until just cooked through, about 30 seconds. Using a spider skimmer, transfer eggplant to prepared baking sheet. Return oil to 400°F (205°C), and repeat frying process with remaining eggplant. Once all of the eggplant has been fried, carefully pour all of the hot frying oil through strainer into large mixing bowl; set aside to cool and discard or reserve for another use. Wipe out wok and return to stovetop.
For the Stir-Fry: Return wok to high heat until smoking. Add 2 tablespoons (30ml) of the reserved eggplant frying oil and swirl the wok to evenly coat the bottom and sides with oil. Add pork, and spread into an even layer using the bottom of the wok spatula. Cook, undisturbed, until pork is lightly browned on bottom side, about 20 seconds. Flip pork and break it up into small pieces with the spatula using a chopping motion while stirring constantly. Add the garlic and chile and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer the pork mixture to a small bowl and set aside.
Return wok to high heat and add the stir-fry sauce. Bring to a rapid simmer, then add pork mixture and eggplant. Cook, stirring constantly, until sauce is fully absorbed by eggplant, about 1 minute. Remove from heat, add basil, and stir until well-combined and basil is slightly wilted. Serve immediately with cooked jasmine rice.
Carbon steel wok, wok spatula.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Stored in an airtight container, the sauce will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.