I adore eggplant and can’t get enough of it in any shape or form. A particular favourite is this Szechuan side dish which is normally referred to as eggplant with fish fragrant Sauce. Not the most appealing of titles but rest assured the recipe does not include any seafood; the term “fish fragrant” referring instead to the style of sauce that is most commonly served with seafood dishes. And what a sauce it is, full of strong flavours and aromas which make the eggplant really come alive. One key ingredient in the recipe is the Chilli Bean Paste or sauce. It really makes a difference and whilst you can substitute a different type of chilli sauce and still produce a memorable dish I recommend you go to your nearest Asian grocer and buy a jar of this as it imparts a wonderful vibrant red colour and a rich savouriness which is hard to replicate. Some recipes call for minced meat to be added to this braise but to be quite honest it’s savoury and full flavoured enough without it. Traditionally the eggplant is deep fried and if you use a wok you actually don’t need too much oil but you can also shallow fry the eggplant, although it may not hold its shape quite so well or retain it’s texture. Whilst I don’t like deep frying at home I find with eggplant it really is an easier option than shallow frying. Eggplants are like a sponge when it comes to oil and I find you use an awful lot of it when you shallow fry, with all the oil being absorbed by the eggplant whereas when it’s deep-fried I find the eggplant absorbs much less oil.
Ingredients – Serves 4 as a side dish Adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop
Vegetable oil, for deep-frying (if you are using a round-bottomed wok you won’t need much oil but you can also shallow fry, see not above)
1½ tablespoons Szechuan chilli bean paste
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
⅔ cup chicken stock
2 teaspoons sugar
1 scant teaspoon corn flour mixed with one tablespoon cold water
2 teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar (Chinese black vinegar, you can substitute with young balsamic vinegar)
4 tablespoons finely sliced spring onions, green and white sections
Cut the eggplant lengthways into three thick slices, then cut these into evenly sized batons. Sprinkle them with salt, mix well and leave in a colander for at least 30 minutes to drain.
In a wok, heat the oil for deep-frying to 180˚C. Add the eggplant in batches and deep-fry for three to four minutes until slightly golden on the outside and soft and buttery within. Remove and drain on paper towels. If you prefer you can also shallow fry the eggplant until golden.
Drain the deep-frying oil, rinse the wok if necessary, then return it to a medium flame. When the wok is hot again, add 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 until you can smell their aromas. Take care not to burn these seasonings; remove the wok from the heat for a few seconds if necessary to control the temperature (you want a gentle, coaxing sizzle, not a scorching heat).
Add the stock and sugar and mix well. Season with salt to taste if necessary. 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 corn flour 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 serve.