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!

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