I'm a sucker for eggplant in any form, but really adore it in Chinese food, especially when it's tossed in a spicy garlic sauce accentuated with the gentle heat of chili. So the second I saw the cover of Hannah Che's stellar new cookbook, "The Vegan Chinese Kitchen," man, did I squeal in delight.
The picture of her Sichuan "fish-fragrant" eggplant is so luscious-looking that less than a day later, in absolute heaven, I was working my way through a steaming bowl of the dish with chop sticks.
"If you aren't a fan of eggplant, it's because you haven't had this dish yet," she writes in the recipe's headnotes, and she is absolutely right: heady with garlic, with a punch of spice from red chili and fresh ginger, it's an absolute winner.
The eggplant is stir-fried to a golden, crispy finish before being braised in the sauce, resulting in creamy, delectable bits of eggplant that melt in your mouth.
If you're turned off by the word "fish" in the title, don't be. It doesn't actually include any. Rather, it refers to the pungent aromatics often associated with Sichuan fish cookery. The sauce is sweet, sour and spicy all at the same time, with noticeable bits of chopped ginger, garlic and scallion.
The dish works as a side or a main, when served with rice. You can find Chinkiang black vinegar (made from glutinous rice) and chili bean paste (a spicy, deep-red paste made with pickled red chilies and fermented broad beans) at Asian markets.
Makes: 4 servings
1/2 cup unsalted stock of any kind or water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinkiang black vinegar
1/2 teaspoon potato starch or cornstarch
1 pound long Chinese or Japanese eggplants (about 3-4 small)
Vegetable oil, for frying
1/2 cup potato starch or cornstarch
1 1/2 tablespoons Sichuan chili bean paste or pickled chili paste
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
2 scallions, thinly sliced, white and green parts kept separate
Make sauce: In a small bowl, whisk all the sauce ingredients until blended. Set aside,
Cut the eggplants lengthwise into 3-inch sections, then slice them into 1/2 -inch wedges. In a large bowl, combine 3 cups water and 1 1/2 tablespoons salt and whisk until salt dissolves, then submerge eggplant and let soak for 15 minutes. Drain and pat wedges dry. (Salting helps relax the flesh, reduce any bitterness and prevent it from soaking up excessive oil.)
Heat about 1 1/2 cups oil in a wok or skillet over medium-high heat. Coat eggplant lightly in potato starch or cornstarch. When the oil reaches 375 degrees, fry eggplant in batches, flipping and turning it occasionally to cook evenly, until edges are slightly golden and skin is glossy purple and wrinkled, 3-4 minutes. Transfer cooked eggplant to a paper towel-lined plate. (Reserve oil for another use.)
Return the wok to the stove over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon reserved oil and add the chili bean paste. Stir-fry over low heat until its red oil is released, about 30 seconds. Add garlic, ginger and scallion whites and stir-fry until just aromatic, about 30 seconds more. Push aromatics up one side of wok and pour the sauce mixture in the center.
Gently fold the fried eggplant into the sauce and simmer for about 2 minutes, until the eggplant has absorbed the flavors and the liquid is thickened from the starch.
Transfer to a plate, garnish with scallion greens and serve immediately,
-- "The Vegan Chinese Kitchen" by Hannah Che (Clarkson Potter, $35)