Comfort Food in Any Language & Disanxian

I’ve been thinking about comfort foods recently. What is it that makes them comforting? My guess is that they’re often foods that we ate as children – in my case, generally a savoury combination of something-starchy-that’s-not-particularly-good-for-you and something-fatty-that’s-definitely-not-good-for-you; macaroni cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, heavily buttered toast… Mmmm…

When I first moved to Beijing in 2002, it was difficult to buy Western ingredients and not easy to find good Western food, so I was weaned off cheese and butter by force. My tastebuds recalibrated themselves and I found local substitutes that offered the same combination of starchy-fatty-goodness, even if they were a million miles away from mac’n’cheese. Have ever you been in the same position? I’d be interested to hear the substitute comfort foods you became attached to…

My own ‘comfort foods with Chinese characteristics’ have ended up being many and varied (Dandan noodles? Yes please! Pineapple sticky rice? Don’t mind if I do…) but my first love was the dish below: Disanxian.

Disanxian – Northeastern-style Potato, Eggplant and Peppers

Disanxian - Potatoes, Eggplant and Peppers

Comfort Food with Chinese Characteristics © Jo James

Disanxian sounds like Chinglish however you translate it (literally, the name means ‘Three Fresh Things from the Earth’), so I’ll stick with the pinyin. Potatoes, eggplant and green peppers are fried and then cooked again in a thick sauce flavoured with garlic, soy sauce and vinegar. Starch, check. Fat, check. It’s a simple, homestyle Chinese dish from North-east China that is sadly seldom found on restaurant menus, but the ingredients are so universally available that you can satisfy your disanxian urges on a whim, whether you’re in Beijing or not.

Cooking & preparation time: 30 minutes
Quantity: One big plateful

2 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
2 Asian eggplants, or 1 large European one, cut into wedges
2 Green bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut into chunks
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Oil, lots of it
Soy sauce, vinegar, salt, sugar
½ cup water or stock
1 tbsp cornflour mixed with 1 tbsp water

1) As with the recipe for Fish-flavoured Eggplant, you need to start with a scary amount of oil in your pan (how else d’you think this stuff gets so delicious?) – an inch-thick layer or so. Heat the oil until a small bit of potato starts to sizzle, then add all the potato wedges and fry until they’re golden brown. Scoop them out of the pan and drain/blot. Repeat with the eggplant – this step will seal the vegetables so that they don’t go too soggy in the sauce.

2) Tip out most of the oil, retaining just a few spoons in the wok. (Check out this website if, like me, you don’t know what to do with all that used oil.) Fry the garlic until it becomes fragrant, then add the peppers and stir-fry briefly.

3) Add the cooked potatoes and eggplant, then the liquid ingredients. Stir until everything is coated and then add the cornflour thickener and stir briefly. Once the sauce has thickened, serve immediately with rice.

I think I must have secretly known that this dish involved lots of oil when ordering it in restaurants. No escaping the fact now, I suppose… 🙂 Enjoy! Next up, something steamed, methinks…

4 responses to “Comfort Food in Any Language & Disanxian

  1. Yum! I completely forgot about this dish. I always knew I never really wanted to know how my favourite dishes were cooked as I knew they’d be really unhealthy but oh so yummy 🙂

  2. Pingback: How to Order Chinese Food like a Pro | Little Yak·

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