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.

Sichuan Eggplant Recipe

  • Prep time: 10 minutes
  • Cook time: 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.

Links:

Sichuan Eggplant, Fish Fragrant Eggplant from Appetite for China

29 Comments

  1. Ruth

    This looks wonderfully spicy! I have a really good asian supermarket near where I work, and they sell tiny eggplants which would be perfect for this I think! I may have to buy some for the weekend.

  2. Ellie

    I can’t wait to try this! Sichuan Eggplant is my Chinese-takeout staple, but this looks much fresher than what I’m used to (which I actually like). Guess I’ll have to find a new takeout staple!

  3. dogtrot

    Warning, warning, warning – sichuan peppercorns are not for everyone.

    DON’T OVERDO IT, sichuan peppercorns are NOT SPICY; it’s an entirely different flavor to western taste buds. Pile in the chili paste if you like the heat, but this peppercorn is not a peppercorn how you know it, in fact, they are used as a counterbalance to the heat from the chili peppers because of how they numb your mouth, overriding every other flavor to make everything, including your water, taste pretty much like battery acid.

    I’m no food wimp. I will eat every manner of strange critter and bitter gourd. I traveled throughout china for 2 months last year and it changed how I eat. I now buy 40 lb bags of rce and eat rice almost every day and my fridge is piled high with all manner of choy and pork. I loved every bite in china, except for two dishes: anything with sichuan peppercorns, and this cold breakfast soup that tasted like the liquid from a no-sodium can of beans.

    I’m glad I had a sichuan peppercorn dish once, but not the two or three times after that. It really sucked when you ordered something and didn’t know it had the peppercorns. Imagine chloraseptic with the cherry-flavor removed. that’s sichuan peppercorns if you ask me. not exactly truffle oil. proceed with caution.

    Well, I love them, as do many other people. (Like most of China.) Use them as directed in this recipe and you’ll be just fine. Sounds to me like you just had a bad experience. ~Garrett

  4. Matt

    This looks incredible. There’s a Penzey’s right down the street from the farmers’ market that I go to; both eggplant and Sichuan peppercorns will be on my list this week!

  5. Stephanie, The Recipe Renovator

    This looks so delicious and authentic. I had the great fortune to travel to Sichuan in 2002 with a group from the San Diego Zoo to see giant pandas. We had a lot of amazing food, and this recipe and photo brings me right back there. The only thing that’s missing is a giant lazy susan. :) Thanks, will give this a try!

  6. Diana @ Appetite for China

    What a coincidence! I revisited fish-fragrant eggplant on my blog this week too, and taught it to my students last night in a Sichuan cooking class. Such an addictive dish. And you’re totally right about the Sichuan pepper…it’s not overwhelming at all and adds an extra smoky dimension to the sauce.

  7. Tony

    Wow, finally a posting of one of my favorite long time dishes. I’ve been making this dish (or similar version) for a long time now using a shortcut Lee Kum Kee spicy garlic sauce. Btw, the biggest challenge I find is getting the skin of the eggplant to still come out purple looking after stir-frying it. It almost always turns into an ugly brown for me. Perhaps I’m not using enough oil (trying to be healthy). Can you please share how you’re able to get the eggplant to cook thoroughly but still have the skin remain bright purple!?

    When you sear it eggplant the skin blisters and turns brown. Some of the pieces here in this picture just got less seared. ~Garrett

  8. Kate

    Ahh, this is my Chinese boyfriend’s favorite (among many). The peppercorns make the dish, I think.

  9. Barbara

    Made the cold Korean noodles from this site earlier this week – yum. Am wondering if the gochu jang I purchased for it will work here. Also wondering if there might be known GF versions of chili paste(s) to look for. Thanks for great recipes.

    I have no idea on the gochu jang. I’ve never tried it before. As for the GF, you would have to check the labels. ~Garrett

  10. Elva

    @ Barbara – Unfortunately, the gochu jang won’t work for this dish. Gochu jang has a rather sweet taste, and it’s commonly used in Korean dishes. However, this dish requires sharp ‘heat’ instead of mild sweet-taste spiciness. Most of Chinese grocery stores carry chili-bean paste, especially ‘Pixian Chili-bean Paste’ which is the authetic brand-name sauce broadly used in Sichuan cuisine dishes. Someone mentioned Lee Kum Kee spicy garlic sauce in another post – ummm…it’s not the same. I wouldn’t use that one. Hope my answer would help. =)

  11. Corina

    I made a dish very similar to this at a cooking course in China. It was amazing and my husband, who doesn’t normally like eggplant, actually loved it as well.

  12. Alexandra

    I am actually posting this from China, in the Hubei region. I’m spending the summer here, and enjoying plenty of dishes with peppercorns!

    In my experience, you are not supposed to actually eat the peppercorns. They impart an amazing flavor to the dish, but eating them really does something to your palate.

    Actually, you do eat them. I learned most of my Chinese dishes from friends who were from the Sichuan region of China. =) ~Garrett

  13. bobbob

    Why is this tagged vegetarian when it contains chicken stock? Sure, it could be modified to be vegetarian, but the same could be said for almost any recipe.

    We made a note of it, but, yes, a quick and easy substitution makes this vegetarian. Plus, unlike many other recipes people may try to modify to make vegetarian, this is an easy substitution. ~Garrett

  14. Lenore

    I have a ton of asian eggplants from my garden sitting on my kitchen counter, begging to be used, and I think this is the perfect recipe to use them in! :)

  15. M. @ V. Gourmet

    This looks wonderful, Garrett! It’s so easy to get in an eggplant rut, but this dish sounds like a great way to give it some new life. Thanks for sharing!

    Of course! I hope you enjoy it! ~Garrett

  16. matt

    Very nice! I’m ethnically chinese from the states and I can’t read chinese so I’ve been looking for this eggplant recipe for ages!

    I would encourage you to pick up any book by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, Fuchsia Dunlop, or Grace Young. Their Chinese cookbooks are easy and authentic. ~Garrett

  17. Emily

    Gotta say — made this tonight and was really disappointed. While I do like the numbing sensation that comes with Sichuan peppercorns, the two teaspoons produced so much numbing that my husband and I couldn’t actually taste any of the other flavors. Maybe my peppercorns were extra fresh, but in the future I’d do no more than 1 tsp of the pepper, and maybe even less. I know that this ‘ma la’ numbing is a key part of authentic sichuan food, but I guess the question is just how much — are you still supposed to be able to taste the other ingredients?

    Emily, some people are rather sensitive to Sichuan peppercorns. It takes some time and a few dishes to find out how much of them you can really take. I can eat plenty of them in a dish, my partner, however, prefers just a pinch or it overwhelms him. I would encourage you to probably reduce the amount of Sichuan peppercorns by half in this recipe if you try it again and see how that works for you. ~Garrett

  18. Patrick

    I’ve found the trick to keeping the beautiful purple color while getting nice softness is to instead cook it as a braise. The ingredients are the same (maybe a bit extra water or stock). But instead of stir-frying and then adding sauce components, you steam the chopped eggplant batons for a few minutes, cook the sauce in your wok, and then add the steamed eggplant to the sauce, cooking to preferred tenderness. It’s one extra step but I find the eggplant is more evenly tender, stays purple, and you get more delicious sauce.

    And if you like the heat and flavor of Sichuan peppercorn but don’t like the getting it in crunchy bursts, you can first heat up 1-2 tbsp of the peppercorns in a pan for 30 seconds and then grind it. Add towards the last few seconds of cooking.

    Some great ideas! Thanks, Patrick! ~Garrett

  19. Prerna@IndianSimmer

    Is it ok if I use normal vegetable oil or maybe light olive oil for the recipe instead of peanut oil?

    Of course! I’ve also added bok choi and onions to this dish. Feel free to customize it to what’s in your kitchen. ~Garrett

  20. Madeline

    Yu xiang qie zi is one of my favorites. I like ordering it at restaurants – each restaurant does it so differently. Some are more like sweet and sour, others more umami savory. I like it cooked with a little Chinese anchovies, or fermented shrimp paste, but have never gotten the recipe quite where I want it to be. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to trying it out. Egg plants are conveniently on sale at the market. ;)

    Also – thanks for the explanation on the name “yu xiang.”

  21. Alexandra

    I guess people’s ma la eating habits vary!

    Personally, I do not eat them, and know plenty of Szechuan Chinese also pick them out of their dishes. When I cook with them, I remove them before serving. They are a delicious flavor, but they’re too much for me intact!

  22. amelia

    This recipe is very delicious, even without the sichuan peppercorns (which no doubt would make it even more delicious). I could not find chili bean paste, so I substituted a mixture of red chili paste and white miso. I was also not sure if I should leave the skin on the eggplant, so I peeled it – I believe it would have been better to leave it on. I will certainly use this recipe again!

  23. RH

    I can’t tell whether I don’t like sichuan peppercorns or if it’s this recipe I don’t like. I love ginger, but I thought this recipe called for too much. I also didn’t feel like there was enough acid, so I added some lime juice. It still didn’t taste balanced, so I tossed in some toasted peanuts for crunch. I’m sure my version was less authentic, but it was much more palatable.

  24. MH604

    I made this dish without the peppercorns, I couldn’t find them at my grocery store. It still tasted pretty good. My eggplant dish lost the vibrant purple colour but it turned out delicious, so who cares! I will definitely make this again!

  25. Taryn

    My husband and I thought this was a delicious dish, a nice foray for us into a new cuisine. Because it was my first time with sichuan peppercorns, I heeded the advice of others on this board and both heated/crushed them and halved the amount. I also removed the black seeds before crushing. The result was perfect – the tingles were noticeable but not overwhelming. We also added coarsely sliced sweet onion with the eggplant, which I thought was an excellent addition. Garrett’s mention of bok choy would also be yummy.

    Thanks, Elise and Garrett!

  26. Steven Short

    Thanks for the warning about the peppercorns. I too love eggplant of any variety but what’s the point if it’s overpowered.

    Thanks also for the Chocolate Guinness cake recipe. I just got back from Safeway with all I needed.
    I’ll try these recipes next week. I know my partner will love it.

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