Yu xiang qie zi
This dish, almost more than any other, expresses for me the gorgeous layering of flavors that is the signature of Sichuanese cooking. Pickled chillies, either on their own or with fermented fava beans in the famous Sichuan chilli bean sauce, give the dish its warmth and luster; garlic, ginger and spring onions add a luxurious kick of flavor and a hint of sweet and sour serves to harmonize all the other tastes. The same sauce, minus the eggplant, can be poured over steamed or deep-fried seafood or chicken; while a similar combination of flavorings can be used to cook slivered pork, or as a dressing for cold, cooked peas or fava beans. They call this complex flavor “fish-fragrant” because it draws on the seasonings used in Sichuanese fish cooking, so it is supposed to recall to those who eat it the taste of fish.
If you prefer not to deep-fry, just salt the eggplant, brush them with oil and shallow-fry them or roast them in the oven, then make a fish fragrant sauce and pour it over them in a serving dish. The eggplant won’t absorb the flavors of the sauce quite as well this way, but they’ll still be delicious. (If you roast or shallow-fry them, then cook them in the sauce as in the classic recipe, they’ll disintegrate, which is why it’s better to pour the sauce over.)
Leftovers, if you have any, taste wonderful either hot or cold. Some cooks add ground pork to the dish for extra savoriness but, when it’s so delicious as it is, why bother? For me, the beauty of this dish lies in the way it transforms such a humble vegetable into something extraordinary.
If you can get it, Sichuanese pickled chilli paste (without the fava beans) gives a sauce with a brilliant red color and a fresh, almost fruity aspect to its flavor. Some cooks use a mixture of pickled chilli paste (for its bright beauty and fruitiness), and chilli bean paste (for its rich savoriness).
Fuchsia Dunlop’s Fish-Fragrant Eggplant
- 1 1/4 lbs (600g) eggplant
- Cooking oil, for deep-frying (1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons/400ml will do if you are using a round-bottomed wok)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Sichuanese chilli bean paste, or Sichuan pickled chilli paste, or a mixture of the two
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
- 2/3 cup (150ml) chicken stock
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon potato flour mixed with one tablespoon cold water
- 2 teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar
- 4 tablespoons finely sliced spring onion greens
Cut the eggplant lengthways into three thick slices, then cut these into evenly sized batons. Sprinkle them with salt, mix well and leave in a colander for at least 30 minutes to drain.
In a wok, heat the oil for deep-frying to 350°F (180˚C). Add the eggplant in batches and deep-fry for three to four minutes until slightly golden on the outside and soft and buttery within. Remove and drain on paper towels.
Drain the deep-frying oil, rinse the wok if necessary, then return it to a medium flame. When the wok is hot again, add 3 tbsp of oil. Add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant, then add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir-fry until you can smell their aromas. Take care not to burn these seasonings; remove the wok from the heat for a few seconds if necessary to control the temperature (you want a gentle, coaxing sizzle, not a scorching heat).
Add the stock and sugar and mix well. Season with salt to taste if necessary. Add the fried eggplant to the sauce and let them simmer gently for a minute or so to absorb some of the flavors. Then stir the potato flour mixture, pour it over the eggplant and stir in gently to thicken the sauce. Add the vinegar and spring onions and stir a few times, then serve.
Excerpted from Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking by Fuschia Dunlop. Text copyright © 2012 by Fuschia Dunlop. Photographs copyright © 2012 by Chris Terry. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.