Monday, February 18, 2013

Chinese Eggplant


If I'd known this would be worth writing down, I'd have taken a picture of the eggplants I used before I cooked them. The thing is, I am not a photographer any more than I am a chef. The eggplants didn't look special, except in hindsight, and before I cooked them I wasn't sure what was going to happen, so I didn't know that a visual aid might be useful later. At any rate, here is this eggplant dish.

about 1 1/2 pounds chinese eggplant- the long skinny kind

1/2 cup of the chinese noodle sauce from this post
6 or 8 green onions
2 or 3 slices fresh ginger
some hot pepper flakes, to taste
cooking oil

a tablespoon of cornstarch

Mix the cornstarch with 2 cups of water and set it aside.

Cut the eggplant into 1/2 inch slices. I cut mine diagonally because it looks more interesting. Cut the green onions into 2 inch pieces.

Heat a skillet with a couple tablespoons of oil on medium-high until the oil just starts to smoke. Sprinkle a pinch of salt in the pan and put in half the eggplant. Stir the slices to get a thin coating of oil on them, then poke them down onto the pan to sear. Periodically turn the slices so that each piece gets evenly browned. When the first batch is done, dump them in a dish and repeat with the second batch.

Put a little more oil in the pan along with the onion, ginger and red pepper flakes. Stir until the onions have gotten moderately brown, then put the all eggplant back in the pan to heat it through. Add the noodle sauce and the cornstarch and water. Cook until the sauce thickens and turns translucent.


1. Warning!!! This dish requires powerful ventilation! In the first place because you have to sear the eggplant, which creates smoke to set off your alarms, and secondly because of the part toward the end where you throw red pepper flakes in the pan. Capsaisin must volatilize easily; frying peppers makes it very hard to breathe. Leave your doors and windows open!

2. The eggplant should be slightly charred in places.

3. Even if your pan is large enough to cook all the eggplant at once, I recommend against it. Having it all in the pan together will trap steam around the pieces and will make them soggy. Cook in 2 batches and the water evaporates of easily.

4. Take your time and pay attention to the searing eggplant, but move fast and slosh everything together once you add the liquid. Once the sauce thickens, remove it from heat immediately or it will burn.

This is a version of the stuff you can get in chinese restaurants. It gets called a bunch of different things- eggplant in tangy sauce, Hunan eggplant, eggplant in garlic sauce, eggplant in bean sauce. Usually they make it too sweet and too goopy. They almost never sear the eggplant, which is a pity, because in a restaurant it's much easier to do. You can crank the gas jets up under a giant wok and flail around with a spatula the size of a shovel and whatever you want to cook is seared in moments. A home stove doesn't put out as much heat as a commercial stove. Instead, you have to compensate by making sure that you have a very heavy skillet and get it well heated before putting in the eggplant. Even so, it takes longer.

I don't remember that dad ever cooked this dish. In fact, other than eggplant sandwiches, I don't remember him ever cooking eggplant except one time: we were in China together my sophomore year in college, hanging around in some dodgy qi gong school. They provided all of our meals, and mostly the food was passable, sometimes it was a bit horrid. Eventually, dad got fed up with it, and the thing that put him over the edge was a dish of eggplant. It was a generic mess of goopy brown and purple, and he said that it bore no resemblance to what it was 'supposed to' be. So the next day, we went to the market for eggplant, which I think was something that perturbed our hosts, because going shopping is chores, and guests aren't supposed to need do any work, right? The actual cooking part was fine, because once dad got into the kitchen and shooed the disappoving cook out into the back yard, he could do his showmanship thing. I didn't look. That kitchen was spooky even before dad started making things ignite in great alarming whooshes. I was more or less expecting the whooshes, but the cook and our hosts were not. There was some gesticulating, and some loud commentary, generally admiring, and the cook shook his head a lot, but not so admiringly. Now I wish I had seen what dad did, because the dish turned out basically like shreds of eggplant jerky. It was chewy, and crunchy in parts, and had a few places where the flesh of the eggplant hadn't been dried or seared out, but remained slightly tender and almost custardy. I asked day what it was seasoned with, and he said just salt, pepper. No soysauce? Just a little "for color" he said.

The dish I made today does not resemble the dry fried eggplant dad made, but eggplant always makes me think of that.

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