鱼香茄子: Fish Fragrant Eggplant Recipe

Today, I have decided to combine my love of gastronomy and all things Chinese by featuring a recipe on the blog. Please don’t be put off by the name of this dish… I know, I know, “fish-frangrant” isn’t exactly the most appetizing description of something you’re about to eat! It is, however, the most accurate English translation of the Chinese name for this style of eggplant. “鱼香茄子”, or “xiāng qiézi”, is a mouthwateringly delicious, deep fried, gorgeously spiced eggplant dish, and given its name, you might expect to find some sort of fish or seafood as one of the main ingredients. Surprise! Yúxiāng qiézi is entirely vegetarian. It’s called “fish-fragrant eggplant” because the recipe calls for the same spicy, garlicky, gingery seasoning that is often used in cooking Sichuanese-style fish. 

This meal has a special place in my heart because it was something my friends and I used to order frequently at a restaurant in Xi’an when we studied abroad there in 2009. Although xiāng qiézi is a Sichuan-style cuisine, it was somehow available at our neighborhood restaurant in Shaanxi Province. Exhausted from our daily grind of three hour long Mandarin lessons, we would indulge in this fantastic, melt-in-your mouth eggplant drowning in delectable chilli bean sauce while discussing the relative merits of simplified vs. traditional Chinese characters or gossiping about the other students in our study-abroad program.

After I left Xi’an, I completely forgot the name of this dish. The complex flavors involved rendered it impossible to recreate from memory alone, so for many years, I feared that I would never again taste this heavenly, flavorful food. Recently, I stumbled upon a version of the recipe online and, after seeing a photo that looked suspiciously familiar to the eggplants I used to order in China, I decided to try it out. I was amazed at the authenticity of the delicious result, and wanted to write it on the blog so I never forget it again!

Truly, all other eggplant recipes pale in comparison to xiāng qiézi. I hope you enjoy it!

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium eggplant
  • Pinch of salt
  • About 1 1/2 cups of cooking oil, for deep-frying (sunflower, canola, or peanut oil will do nicely)
  • 1  1/2 tablespoons Sichuanese chilli bean paste (although you can make an un-spicy version with Lee Kum Kee Black Garlic sauce which is also delicious. In fact, the Lee Kum Kee brand is widely available at many grocery stores and very good for all kinds of Asian cooking).
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
  • 2/3 cup vegetable stock
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon potato starch mixed with one tablespoon cold water (to thicken the sauce)
  • 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
  • 3 finely sliced spring onions

Instructions:

Cut the eggplant lengthwise into three thick slices, and then cut these into smaller batons. Place them in a colander, sprinkle them with salt, mix well, and let them sit for at least 30 minutes. This draws some of the moisture out of the eggplants and allows them to better absorb the flavors of the sauce. While the eggplant slices are sitting in the colander, you can chop and prepare the rest of the ingredients!

In a wok or a frying pan, heat the oil for deep-frying over high heat. Add the eggplant slices in small batches and deep fry for 3-4 minutes or until they are slightly brown on the outside and very soft inside. Place them on paper towels to drain them.

Drain off some of the deep-frying oil, or add oil (depending on what is necessary to ensure that you have around 3 tbsp of oil in the wok). Heat the oil on medium heat, add the bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is very fragrant. Next, add the ginger and garlic and stir fry on medium heat for 3 minutes or so, until they become fragrant as well. Be careful not to burn the seasonings, just bring them to a nice simmer.

Add the vegetable stock and sugar and mix well. You can add salt at this point, but with the bean past you may not need to so be sure to taste it first. Add all the deep friend eggplant slices, mix well, and allow them to simmer and absorb the flavors of the sauce. Stir in the potato starch mixture to thicken the sauce. Add the vinegar and stir gently.

Transfer the eggplants and sauce to a bowl, garnish with the little green onion slices, and serve with rice!

Advertisements

A Powerful Commentary on Air Pollution in Chinese Cities

Mulan in the Smog

 

Inspired by this story from Newsweek, I decided to post the image of Disney’s Mulan in smoggy, hazy Tiananmen Square on the blog today.

If you’re interested in learning about the scientific details of the air quality in Beijing, you can check out this Real Time Air Quality Index.

Given the very real impact that air pollution has on human health and the environment, this is pretty frightening stuff. There is, however, reason to be optimistic about China’s prospects; China is investing in renewable energy, and in November of 2014, President Xi Jinping and President Obama signed an agreement to curb carbon emissions. It seems that China is becoming aware that high emissions and poor air quality could end up costing a great deal of money, which is a brilliant incentive for creating effective policy change.

Debunking Asian Stereotypes

This story is really well researched, and just too good not to post!  Here’s how NPR introduces the topic:

“There’s a tune that you’ve probably heard throughout your life. It’s nine notes long, and it’s almost always used to signal that something vaguely Asian is happening or is about to happen.

You know what I’m talking about. The tune’s most prominent role is probably in that 1974 song “Kung Fu Fighting.” It comes in right as Carl Douglas is singing that anthemic “Oh-hoh-hoh-hoah.”

(Just for funsies, here are some of the song’s lyrics: “There was funky China men from funky Chinatown / They were chopping them up / They were chopping them down / It’s an ancient Chinese art / And everybody knew their part.”)”

I’m sure you’ve probably guessed by now, but this little tune actually has nothing to do with China or Asia at all…  Have a listen to the full story by clicking on the link below:

How The ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ Melody Came To Represent Asia

Nerding Out Over Contemporary Chinese Art – Part III

Welcome to the third and final installment of my series on contemporary Chinese artists, featuring none other than Shu Yong!

Issues of translation are central to Shu Yong’s installation piece entitled “GuGe Brick” that was recently exhibited at the 55th Venice Biennale International Festival earlier in 2013. “GuGe” (古歌) can be interpreted as phonetic translation of “Google”, but is literally translated as “Ancient Song”. Shu Yong examined 1,500 commonly known Chinese words, phrases, and sayings, and translated them into English using Google software.

As Shu was born in 1974, he is historically informed by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in China and thus many of the sayings depicted in his work are economically oriented. Of course, the sayings also include ideological phrases, references to Chinese history and philosophy, as well as contemporary slang terms. All of the terms that Shu selected are clearly of great significance to the artist, and are perhaps representative of Chinese culture and society today.

To produce the installation, Shu wrote the original Chinese saying as well as its respective English translation according to Google on rice paper using black ink. Then, he pasted the rice paper texts onto transparent resin bricks of comparable size and shape to the bricks in the Great Wall of China, and arranged the bricks into a wall.

Shu Yong, “GuGe Brick” (2013

Shu Yong, “GuGe Brick” (2013)

Shu Yong’s piece is a humorous testament to the inaccuracy of Google translation software, but more importantly, it serves as an embodiment of the difficulties of cross-cultural communication. The artist cleverly depicts the impact of globalization and digital, real-time communication on Chinese language and Chinese culture, and the inaccurate translations reflect the international community’s skewed understanding of Chinese culture and history. Like Xu Bing and Gu Wenda (for my previous posts on them click here and here respectively), Shu is primarily concerned with meaning, and how meaning can be manipulated by text and, in some cases, completely lost in translation.

Although this piece is incredibly relevant to the digital age, Shu, like the other contemporary Chinese artists examined in this series, still makes references to Chinese tradition and history: by utilizing ink and rice paper to create the bricks, he draws upon traditional Chinese ink painting and calligraphy writing practices. By arranging the bricks into a wall, he clearly references the Great Wall of China, an iconic image and a distinctively Chinese one at that. Alternatively, the wall of bricks could be interpreted as a dividing wall between East and West, and a barrier to cross-cultural communication. In this sense, Shu Yong attempts to explore Chinese language and define Chinese identity by juxtaposing it with the “other”, much like Gu Wenda’s “Forest of Stone Steles”. The transparency of the bricks themselves creates an interesting comparison to the lack of transparency and inaccuracy in the textual translations.

However, Shu Yong is not as pessimistic about the prospects for Chinese identity in the 21st century as his colleagues are; perhaps the transparency of these bricks can be interpreted as an opportunity to see the other side of the wall and transcend the barriers of cross-cultural communication. The bilingual nature of the piece itself seems to imply that Chinese language and culture can co-exist peacefully with other cultures as China finds its place in the 21st century, provided that Chinese people maintain a sense of humor when misunderstandings occur.

I particularly like the more light-hearted tone and general sense of whimsy of this piece, especially in contrast to the slightly less hopeful, darker, more “serious” pieces I featured earlier in the series.  Shu Yong’s use of Google as means of producing artwork also seems refreshingly relevant and contemporary. “GuGe Brick” might be my personal favorite.

And that concludes my series of posts on Chinese contemporary artists (at least until I receive my newly purchased Ma Nan piece!)

Nerding Out Over Contemporary Chinese Art – Part II (B)

Today’s post features Chinese artist Gu Wenda’s piece entitled “Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting of Tang Poetry”. (For my previous post on Gu, click here).

To produce this piece, Gu carved translations of Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 C.E.) poetry into 50 stone tablets. The poems were translated first literally from Chinese into English, and then phonetically from English back into Chinese. As you can imagine, this convoluted method of translation renders the final product completely incomprehensible.

Gu Wenda, “Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting of Tang Poetry” (2001)

Gu Wenda, “Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting of Tang Poetry” (2001)

 

Gu’s “Forest of Stone Steles” comments on issues of translation and cultural misunderstanding in a globalized world. His artistic rendition of misinterpretation challenges the accepted notions of translation and meaning, arguing that a misunderstanding of text, writing, and language inevitably results in a misreading of culture itself.

Gu Wenda’s concern with translation can be interpreted as a distinctly post-modern, global problem, but his knowledge of traditional Chinese poetry and writing systems ground him firmly in ancient Chinese history. In this way, Gu manages to straddle the past and the present, the East and the West, addressing contemporary, universal questions with an understanding of tradition and a sense of history.

“Forest of Stone Steles” can alternatively be interpreted as an exploration of the Chinese cultural identity as it stands in opposition to “the other” or “the West”, exposing the miscommunications that occur because of that dichotomy. Gu’s artwork does not offer a solution to cross-cultural misunderstanding, nor does it provide a concrete definition of what it means to be Chinese; however, his work clearly exposes the linkages between Chinese writing systems and the Chinese concept of cultural identity. Through his commitment to ancient Chinese methodology and his deep understanding of Chinese linguistic traditions, he proposes that ancient Chinese language and text can serve as a source of distinction and definition.

Stay tuned for my next post featuring another contemporary Chinese artist who deals with issues of language and translation in his work!

Nerding Out Over Contemporary Chinese Art – Part II (A)

Another Chinese artist who works with language as a means of deconstructing the Chinese cultural identity is Gu Wenda. Gu has an array of fascinating pieces to explore – which is why this post will actually be divided into two parts (A and B). Part A will focus specifically on the “Mythos of Lost Dynasties” series, which explores the historical significance of the simplification of Chinese characters. Check the blog again in the next few weeks to see my next post about some of Gu’s other works.

Born in 1955, Gu Wenda experienced the Cultural Revolution and even joined the Red Guard, where he was asked to contribute to the simplification of Chinese characters. His experience during this time sparked a fascination with the ancient Chinese writing system, and he was inspired to study traditional Chinese calligraphy. As a result, text and language are central to his “Mythos of Lost Dynasties” series, which are large-scale ink paintings on scrolls depicting subverted Chinese ideographs.

Gu Wenda - The Mythos of Lost Dynasties

Gu Wenda, “The Mythos of Lost Dynasties” (1983-1987)

 

Much like Xu Bing’s “Tian Shu” (check out my previous post on Xu Bing here), Gu Wenda’s characters are “meaningless” and invented, but both artists’ works remain true to traditional Chinese methods of calligraphy and printing, and both pieces clearly maintain a distinctively Chinese quality. Gu Wenda’s characters are in fact based off the ancient Chinese “Seal Script” that was widely used in the Qin (221-206 B.C.E) and Han (206 B.C.E – 220 C.E.) Dynasties. Aside from the fact that the ideographs are completely indecipherable, Gu’s art works look remarkably historically accurate. He utilizes conventional media such as ink, paper scrolls, and traditional calligraphy tools to create a seemingly authentic pseudo-language.

Gu posits that writing and text are fundamental to Chinese cultural identity. He argues that language is a signifier of cultural conventions, but by manipulating language, one can both embrace and challenge tradition simultaneously. Like Xu Bing, Gu’s “meaningless” characters also provoke questions about the limitations of language and human understanding. Perhaps Gu Wenda, in calling attention to the fact that language and text can be manipulated, is drawing upon his own experience in the Cultural Revolution and referencing his own role in the process of simplifying traditional Chinese characters.

Although his work provides no easy answers, I would argue that Gu, like Xu Bing, laments the current state of Chinese identity, and proposes a renewed interest in ancient Chinese writing and language as source of self discovery. His fastidious commitment to historical accuracy in the process of writing the characters and clear respect and knowledge of the discipline of calligraphy itself can be interpreted as somewhat nostalgic; perhaps Gu is arguing that a renewed understanding and of the process and methodology of traditional Chinese writing systems can provide meaning to the Chinese people.

In 1993, Gu began a fifteen year project called “United Nations”, in which Gu collected human hair donated by people around the world to create massive calligraphy installations that explored the idea of “internationalism”. You can learn more about that project here.

Also, check out Gu’s website for his bio and some of his other works. Look forward to part B of this post, which will feature more on Gu Wenda!

Nerding Out Over Contemporary Chinese Art – Part I

I’m in the midst of my final exams, and I can’t believe that my graduate program in Chinese Studies is coming to an end already. (I do have to submit a dissertation that’s due in September, but that’s another story!) My parents have generously agreed to give me a piece of art as a congratulatory gift, and I’ve already selected the piece that I want. Of course, it’s by a Chinese artist! I don’t want to give too much away, since I haven’t even purchased the piece yet, but it definitely got me thinking about other works of contemporary Chinese art with similar themes that I could showcase on the blog in the meantime. I’ll definitely do a post about the piece I am buying once I’ve seen it in person!

I particularly love contemporary Chinese art because it is so closely linked with Chinese culture and history. There seems to be a huge pool of very talented Chinese artists working today, and the fact that the PRC heavily censors the media adds a lot of dimension and controversy to the landscape that these artists inhabit. As a result, the Chinese art market is booming, and the variety of styles and perspectives represented in the field is truly incredible.

My very close friend Nina Lippman is a specialist of Contemporary Chinese art based in Shanghai and New York, and she is the one who introduced me to the piece that I am buying. Have a look at her beautiful and inspiring facebook page that is constantly updated with the latest news in the Chinese contemporary art world.

This will be a three part post that explores some of my favorite Chinese contemporary artworks who are all concerned with issues of written language, calligraphy, and translation, starting with Xu Bing’s “Book from the Sky”. Look out for more art-related posts to follow in the next few weeks.

Keep in mind that these are just my personal interpretations of artworks and my opinions may not accurately reflect that artists’ original intentions.

Xu Bing’s “Tian Shu” (天书 - translated into English as “Book from the Sky”) was first shown publicly in 1988, and it is an installation of invented, meaningless Chinese characters hanging from the ceiling. The name “Tian Shu” functions as a pun in Chinese, meaning “Heavenly Script”, or “Obscure or Illegible Writing”.

Xu Bing Tian Shu

Xu Bing, “Tian Shu” (1988)

 

The book was printed by hand in a factory specializing in traditional Chinese methods of printing and binding which are based on the techniques used in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 C.E.). The structure of the book includes a title, table of contents, recognizable paragraph structures, quotations, etc… Excluding the fact that the characters themselves are unreadable, “Book from the Sky” is a perfect example of an archive of Chinese literature.

The disciplined and historically accurate production, organization, and formatting render the piece a perfect example of Chinese cultural authority. The very name “Tian Shu” implies that the book has come from heaven and is bestowed or imposed upon the masses, thereby further emphasizing its authority. In this sense, one can interpret Xu Bing’s work as a commentary on how simplified Chinese characters were made the compulsory standard by the government in the 1950’s and 60’s and have lost much of the original cultural meaning of traditional characters.

However, “meaningless” may be a poor way to describe the characters in “Tian Shu”; perhaps Xu Bing has actually created a new system of writing in which each character has a specific connotation, but has yet to disclose this information to the public. Although this is entirely possible, we must not discard the word “meaningless” when describing the characters featured in “Tian Shu”, because their very “meaninglessness” makes a very significant point; some viewers speculate that Xu Bing’s intention was to comment on the reliability of knowledge and the place of tradition in modern Chinese society.  The artist himself spent around three years designing and producing this work of art that no one can read or comprehend, thereby poignantly commenting on the futility of existence and limitations of human knowledge.

Chinese people’s reactions to “Tian Shu” are notably very different than those of a Western audience: Chinese people are frustrated by the piece because although the characters look like legible Chinese writing, ironically, they are unreadable! People who have no knowledge of written Chinese would not understand the significance of Xu Bing’s work. “Tian Shu” is certainly not “export art” because it is intended for a Chinese audience, or at least an audience with some knowledge of Chinese language.

Xu Bing’s emotive piece laments the current state of Chinese identity; by implying that Chinese written language itself has lost its meaning, Xu Bing is pointing out that Chinese culture is losing its meaning and significance as well. The artist uses Chinese characters to assert that language is a critical component of culture, and that Chinese language and historical traditions must be protected, internalized, and revered in order for Chinese culture to thrive and remain relevant in the 21st century.

You can see some of Xu Bing’s other amazing works on his website.