Fish-flavoured eggplant (鱼香茄子, yúxiāng qiézi*) was one of the first dishes that I ate in China. I think I must have chanced upon it via a random order from a menu in Chinese, as I can’t see how I’d ever have ordered something with such an unpromising name.
Happily, however, there’s nothing fishy about it. Eggplant is shallow-fried, and then cooked again briefly in a thick sauce of garlic, ginger, spring onions and doubanjiang (豆瓣酱, dòubàn jiàng, a spicy, salty paste of fermented chilli and broad beans). Even more happily, at the time I was in Chengdu, home of this Sichuanese dish. The memory of that meal has been my Platonic ideal of what fish-flavoured eggplant should taste like – and was unmatched, until now…
This is one of the great things that I’m discovering about learning to cook Chinese food properly, (as opposed to stir-frying assorted vegetables and sprinkling them with soy sauce, which I’ve been breezily doing for years) – you can recreate favourite dishes and flavours and tweak them until your memories and hunger are satisfied. Once you’ve tracked down any weird ingredients, that is.
In this dish, the only ingredient that really qualifies as ‘weird’ is the doubanjiang. The paste takes over a month to make, so a DIY version really wasn’t going to happen. Better to head to a Chinese grocery store and see what they have. Make sure to check the ingredients, as there are some imposters out there. I found one jar yesterday that used sweet potato in place of the broad beans…
Fish-Flavoured Eggplant / Yúxiāng Qiézi
This recipe makes enough for one big dish – a main course serving for two if accompanied by rice, and one other dish. It’s definitely best when made with Asian eggplants, which are long and skinny, because this way the flesh of each slice has some skin to hold it together once it’s been fried. If you can only find the fatter European eggplants, then buy the smallest ones you can and cut them crosswise into 5mm slices to achieve the same effect.
As I wrote in an earlier post, I’m trying to improve my ‘feel’ for Chinese cooking, which goes some way to accounting for the vague quantities given below. Apologies if you find it confusing – just taste your own version towards the end of the cooking time, adjust the seasoning, and I’m sure it will be just delicious…
2 small Asian eggplants, cut into wedges (see note above)
2 spring onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 ping pong ball-sized chunk of ginger, minced
2 heaped teaspoons of doubanjiang
Chinese cooking wine (you can use dry sherry for this)
Black Chinese vinegar (I guess you could use a little basalmic vinegar here, but in this case you’ll need to reduce the amount of sugar you add)
Oil, Water, Sugar, Salt
Cornflour mixed into a thin paste with water
1) Heat as much oil as you dare in a pan (in my case, about an inch-thick layer) over a medium-high heat and fry the aubergine until it’s 90% cooked. Remove from the pan and drain in a sieve placed over a bowl.
2) Return some of the oil to the pan and throw in the spring onions, garlic and ginger. Fry then until they become fragrant, and then add the eggplant, doubanjiang and a slug of cooking wine. Stir everything until the eggplant is covered in the sauce.
3) Add a small bowl of cold water to the pan and stir until it starts bubbling. Taste the sauce and add salt, sugar and vinegar to taste. Stir well, and when you’re happy with the flavour, add the cornstarch and water. Stir until the sauce becomes thick and glossy and serve with rice.
The sauce was really salty and spicy when I first tasted it (much too enthusiastic with the doubanjiang), but a little extra sugar bought it back from the brink… Enjoy!
P.S. Beckie, this is for you 🙂
* These bits are pinyin, the officially approved way of writing Chinese using English letters – the accent markers show the tones you use when you’re speaking, or ordering. The story behind the odd name of this dish comes from the combination of flavourings – garlic, ginger, spring onions, doubanjiang – which are commonly used to flavour fish in Sichuan…