Sichuan Eggplant

Are eggplants showing up in your local markets yet? They are here, and guest author Garrett has tossed together a classic Chinese dish using long and tender asian eggplants from the farmers market. Enjoy! ~Elise

The actual name for this dish in Sichuan cuisine oddly translates to “Fish-Fragrant” Eggplant. Confusing, as this dish has no fish anywhere in it. You see, in Sichuan cuisine there are 23 complex flavors. These range from red-oil flavor, hot and sour flavor, lychee flavor, to strange flavor, and many others. Fish-Fragrant is one of the most celebrated.

Fish-Fragrant is a combination of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy tastes that come from ginger, garlic, scallions and fermented or pickled chilies. It is so named because these flavors are often used to enhance fish. Often times in earlier Chinese history, if home cooks were unable to procure fresh fish for meals, they had to make do with older fish that might have had too intense of a fishy taste. The ingredients and tastes that make up the fish-fragrant flavor are all strong and could cover the odors of seafood that wasn’t the most fresh.

These days many people can get perfectly fresh fish. However, fish-fragrant flavor is still quite popular. This is especially true in the Sichuan region of China where the native cuisine is known for being molten hot.

We’ve toned the heat of this dish down considerably for the everyday non-Sichuan eater as the original recipe is like swallowing lava. You can practically feel it turn your organs to ash from the inside out. Even if you fancy yourself a talented fire-eater, use only a small amount of the chili bean paste your first try as it is incredibly spicy.

  • Prep: 10 minutes
  • Cook: 10 minutes
  • Yield: Makes 2-4 servings.

This recipe calls for asian eggplants, or Japanese eggplants. They are long and thin compared to a European or globe eggplant, and much more tender and delicate. If you can't find them you can substitute globe eggplant, but the dish is really best with the asian eggplant.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 lbs. asian (long and skinny) eggplant
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 1/4 cup chicken stock (substitute vegetable stock for vegetarian)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1/2 - 1 1/2 tablespoons chili bean paste*
  • 2 teaspoon crushed sichuan peppercorns** (optional, but inauthentic without)
  • 3 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon corn starch
  • 2 teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar or apple cider vinegar
  • 4 scallions, roughly chopped
  • Cilantro for garnish (optional)

*A lot of grocery stores have Asian ingredient aisles now. You should be able to find chili-bean paste, a mixture of preserved chilies mixed with mashed soybeans, there or at any Asian market. (Do not confuse with black bean paste or chili-garlic paste.)

**Sichuan peppercorns are available at some stores and online for quite cheap. They aren't spicy like other peppers but rather have a citrusy flavor and induce a tingly, numbing sensation like a carbonated drink.

Method

1 Begin your mise en place. Quarter the eggplant lengthwise and chop into large batons and set aside. In a small bowl, mix together the chicken stock, sugar, and soy sauce and set it aside. In a second bowl, mix together the chili bean paste, garlic, ginger, and sichuan peppercorns and set it aside. In a third bowl, mix together the cornstarch with a tablespoon of water and set it aside. Lastly, in a fourth bowl, mix together the scallions and vinegar and set it aside.

2 Place the oil in a wok or large sauté pan over medium-high heat until the oil is almost smoking. Add the eggplant and sauté, allowing it to sit for a few seconds each time you move it to allow it to brown and blister. If the eggplant absorbs all the oil and some pieces don't get any then add a little more oil.

3 Add the chili bean paste, garlic, ginger, and sichuan peppercorns and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the chicken stock mixture, turn the heat to medium-low and simmer for 90 seconds. Add the cornstarch mixture and stir together until the sauce thickens a bit. Add the scallions and vinegar and cook for 15 seconds to diffuse their harsh flavors a bit. Garnish with cilantro and serve.

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