My first night in China I was invited to a dinner banquet. Fresh off the plane, suffering from jet lag, I was starving and had no idea what would be served. I sampled a few different dishes that appeared to be vegetarian, and they all were really oily and spicy. Things tasted good, but nothing phenomenal. I was a bit worried that this was what I would be stuck eating for the next two years.
Then I tried the one dish that looked ambiguous. It was strips of eggplant, covered in slightly spicy, red sauce. I loved it, and so did everyone else at the table. We all agreed that this was our favorite, by far. I thought it was vegetarian, but when we asked what the dish was called, our bilingual host translated it to “Fragrant Fish Eggplant”. I was confused. No one knew if it was fish or eggplant or both. As a vegetarian, I really wanted to know what was in that dish.
As it turns out, yu xiang qie zi or fragrant fish eggplant, doesn’t actually contain fish. It’s named after the spices that are used to season the eggplant, which have traditionally been used to season fish dishes in the region. The base of the sauce, doubanjiang, is a red, fermented bean paste that’s used in many Sichuan recipes. Most of the dishes that use this sauce are meat and fish heavy, so I enjoy being able to experience this flavor while maintaining my vegetarianism. The paste is available in the US and might be called pickled Sichuan paste, bean paste or any variety of names.
I loved this dish so much, that I wanted to learn how to make it at home and impress my American friends. I was hoping to have my Chinese friends show me how they make it at home, but they all admitted they don’t make it. It’s too difficult, they said. So, I turned to my students. Sick of eating horrible cafeteria food, they loved coming over my apartment and making dinner as a class. After asking me about my favorite Sichuan dishes they promised to make me yu xiang qie zi, but the night of the dinner I noticed that all of the eggplant they had purchased went unused. It takes too long to cook they said.
I realized that my beloved fragrant fish eggplant is a staple at most Sichuan restaurants, but few Sichuan families (at least that I know) eat it at home. Many people say that it’s complicated to make, but after some poking around online, snooping in kitchens at my favorite restaurants and asking my most talented chef friends, I found that it’s not difficult at all to make. It just requires a little more time to prep the eggplant than most super-quick, flash-fry and done dishes.
The recipe below is based on one by Fushia Dulop, who is an incredible Sichuan Chef. If it’s too complicated, I’ve also experimented with one by China Sichuan Food. This one is a much simpler, pour-it-all-in-one-bowl kind of approach. I’ve changed and added some things based on what I’ve had in different restaurants. Feel free to make it your own.
Yu xiang qie zi (鱼香茄子)
- 2 Chinese eggplants
- Raw vegetable oil (amount varies depending on wok and preference)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons doubanjiang ( Sichuan chili paste)
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
- 1/2 cup water
- 2-3 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon thickening agent (cornstarch or Chinese pea starch) mixed with one tablespoon cold water
- 2 teaspoons dark Chinese vinegar (Chinkiang)
- Chopped spring onion greens and/ or fresh cilantro for garnish
In advance: Cut the eggplant lengthwise into four long slices, then cut these in half. Sprinkle them lightly with salt, leave in a colander for at least 30 minutes to drain. The eggplant should lose some of its water weight. When finished draining, try to pat off some of the salt.
In a wok, heat the oil for frying to 350°F . (I don’t like to deep fry, so I use about 3 tbsp of oil and try to add one entire eggplant to the wok, then replenish the oil and fry the second eggplant. Otherwise, I find it’s too oily.) Fry for three to four minutes until golden on the outside. The inside should be soft and flexible. Remove and drain on paper towels.
Clean the wok and then return it to a medium heat. When the wok is hot again, add 3 tbsp of oil. Add the doubanjiang and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant, then add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir-fry for 2 or 3 minutes until you can smell their aromas. Adjust the temperature as necessary to avoid burning.
Add the water and sugar and mix well.
Add the fried eggplant to the sauce and let them simmer gently for a minute or so to absorb some of the flavors. Then stir the thickening mixture, pour it over the eggplant and stir in gently to thicken the sauce.
Add the vinegar and spring onions and stir a few times, then garnish and serve.
Note: One of my favorite restaurants in Chengdu makes yu xiang tofu, which is essentially this exact sauce poured over strips of hard tofu. I find that many Americans don’t love the squishy texture of eggplant, so get creative with your pairings. You can also make this sauce and serve over noodles or rice for a quick meal.