Fish-fragrant eggplant is a dish that came to me late. I’ve seen that tempting recipe pop up on screens and in books many times over the years, but only decided to make it after reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, a Sweet – Sour Memoir of Eating in China 1 For those who don’t know this dish, Fish-fragrant eggplant, yú xiāng qiézi, contains no fish and no other animal products for that matter. Along with Mapo Tofu, a dish I do make often, Fish-fragrant eggplant is one of Sichuan’s most famous dishes. Given that eggplants are available all year round, and that the special sauces required for this dish last well, it’s a dish that suits lockdown very well.
Dunlop’s memoir is seductive and a great substitute for travel in these stay-at-home times. After becoming disenchanted with her work at the BBC in London, Dunlop moved to Chengdu to study at Shanghai University, ostensibly to learn Mandarin and embark on research, until she became seduced by the local cuisine. Her passion for the culture and language of food enabled her to immerse more effectively in Mandarin as well as the local Sichuan dialect much more so than through her formal studies. She became the first Westerner to study at the prestigious Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. Although there are a few recipes sprinkled throughout the text, this is not a recipe book, though it does discuss Chinese food at great length, including the dynastic history of taste, the textural elements of Chinese food, the importance of cutting shapes, and the unusual concept of ‘mouth feel’. It is also a fascinating read for linguists or anyone who has attempted studying Mandarin: one can feel the mind and tongue rolling around the sounds of the cooking terminology which are noted in pinyin. Dunlop’s memoir paints a balanced portrait of Sichuan: she doesn’t omit issues such as environmental degradation and local corruption, but, in the end, her love for Sichuan’s friendly people, its culture and food shines through. It’s a great read, especially for those who are open to learning more about China and its people.
Fish- Fragrant Eggplant, a recipe by Fuchsia Dunlop
- 600-700 g eggplant
- peanut oil for frying
- 11/2 Tbsp Sichuanese chilli bean paste ( see notes below)
- 3 tsp finely chopped ginger
- 3 tsp finely chopped garlic
- 2/3 cup ( 150 ml) of stock
- 1 1/2 tsp white sugar
- 1/2 tsp light soy sauce
- 3/4 tsp cornstarch, mixed with 1 Tbls cold water
- 11/2 tsp Chinkiang vinegar
- 4 spring onions, green parts only, sliced into fine rings
- 1 tsp sesame oil
Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and then crosswise. Chop each quarter lengthwise into 3 or 4 evenly sized chunks. Sprinkle generously with salt and leave for at least 30 minutes to drain.
In a wok, heat oil for deep frying. Add the eggplant in batches and deep fry for 4-4 minutes until lightly golden on the outside and soft and buttery within, Remove and drain on kitchen paper.
Drain off the deep frying oil, rinse the wok if necessary, and then return it to a medium flame with 2-3 tablespoons of oil. Add the chilli bean paste and stir fry until the oil is red and fragrant: then add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir fry for another 20-30 seconds until they too are fragrant.
Add the stock, sugar and soy sauce and mix well. Season with salt to taste if necessary.
Add the fried eggplant to the sauce, bring to the boil and then let them simmer gently for a few minutes to absorb some of the flavours. Then sprinkle the cornstarch mixture over the eggplant and stir in gently to thicken the sauce. Next, stir in the vinegar and spring onions and leave for a few seconds until the onions have lost their rawness. Finally, remove the pan from the heat, stir in the sesame oil and serve.
My Notes A neutral oil like canola oil is fine to substitute for peanut oil, but don’t use olive oil in Chinese cooking. Wipe the salt from the eggplants before cooking and dry them with a paper towel. Chinkiang vinegar is black vinegar that is now widely available. Don’t substitute this for another vinegar. I found the best chilli bean sauce for this dish in a Chinese- Vietnamese shop and have added the photo below. Keep the cut pieces of eggplant fairly large to maintain that velvety pillow effect. Serve with steamed rice. This dish is plenty for two or forms part of a banquet for 4-6.
Fuchsia Dunlop has published many cookbooks on Sichuan Cuisine and is considered a world authority on that topic.
The header photo was taken in the foyer of a renovated Tang Dynasty house during our travels around Sichuan in 2014. It appealed to the Tretchikoff in me.