Introduction: Spicy Chinese Eggplant
One of my favorite Chinese dishes is spicy eggplant. It has many names such as Szechuan eggplant or fish-fragrant eggplant although a better translation is probably fish-aroma. I don't know where the fish comes from but it might have to do with the spices. There’s something about the savory, rich, tongue tantalizing spicy flavor that makes the tender, meaty vegetable so appealing. The dish is surprisingly easy to prepare: I’ve followed many recipes before coming up with a quick, simple, and remarkably accurate one of my own.
Step 1: Cookware and Preparing the Main Ingredients
Measuring Spoons/ Cups
Bowls to hold and mix ingredients
Skillet – I found my 6 inch cast iron skillet to be ideal for this dish. My larger cast iron pan does not cook evenly, searing a portion to char while leaving the rest undercooked. The heat should be substantial yet not so much as to burn the food being cooked. Most pans should be preheated at least 5 to 10 minutes before the addition of any ingredients. A wok is also an option; however, I have yet to find a household kitchen range with enough power to properly heat a wok. Unless there is a commercial wok burner and range hood to match available, the best option is probably a small pan such as a cast iron skillet sized to the kitchen range.
Cooking Oil – I’ve cooked eggplant many times and the few times it didn't cook properly was a result of not adding enough oil. This recipe is not for the lighthearted as it involves lots of oil and frying. Since eggplant is spongy and astringent, an adequate quantity of oil is necessary to thoroughly cook it. Use as much as is needed to fully coat the eggplant while maintaining enough in the pan to fry it.
Eggplant – I came across the long slender eggplant at a local market which is the kind I find at restaurants. I have made this dish with both the oblong European variety and the skinny Asian variety and have enjoyed both just as much. Without the resilient skin to hold the fragile flesh together during the frying process, the more plump variety seems to hold together better when cut into cubes. The eggplant should be cut in bite sized pieces. I cut them 1 to 2 inches in length and about a ½ inch in thickness. The exact size isn’t important as long as it is not so small that it dissolves in cooking nor so large that it can't be picked up in a spoon.
Garlic – I used a leftover head of garlic. I’ve never had a case where I used too much so feel free to use however much is at hand. Anything more than a couple cloves is adequate. The garlic should be minced so that it cooks quickly, releasing its flavor in the process.
Step 2: Preparing the Sauce
Soy Sauce – Any brand would do. I would stay away from the light style since the quantity of water added would have to be adjusted to compensate for its lack of flavor.
Sriracha Sauce – I used sriracha sauce made by Huy Fong Foods. I have no difficulty finding it here in Southern California but it might be limited to only a few particular stores in your area. Due to its popularity in recent years, I doubt anyone would have difficulty acquiring it except in the more remote parts in the US or perhaps in other countries. The Huy Fong brand is probably the best known of them all. I have tried other ones and although I would say they are similar, I have found some to be spicier while also lacking in brightness and flavor.
Combine the Sauce
The sauce consists of soy sauce for the savoriness and saltiness, sriracha for its heat and flavor, sugar for the sweetness, and water to dilute the mixture. I mixed 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 4 tablespoons sriracha, 1 tablespoon sugar, and ½ cup water in a measuring cup. 4 tablespoons of sriracha is the upper limit of spiciness for me: 2 tablespoons is about mild in intensity while 4 and above adds a substantial amount of heat to the dish.
The corn starch should be dissolved separately in a bowl. Scoop 2 teaspoons corn starch in a small bowl and slowly add ¼ cup water while whisking away at the mixture. A couple chopsticks works great as a whisk although a spoon or fork would do. It is important to completely dissolve the corn starch as it will form dry clumps instead of thickening the sauce if it is not thoroughly dissolved.
Step 3: Cooking the Eggplant
Add about a ¼ cup of cooking oil to a heated pan. Next add the eggplant pieces. The goal in this step is to cook the eggplant quickly by applying an adequate amount of heat. Sizzling and splattering of oil out of the pan is a sign that enough heat is being applied. A lid can be used; however, care should be taken not to completely cover the pan, causing its contents to be steamed rather than seared. Ideally the eggplant is nicely browned in around 10 minutes as it begins to fall apart into mush when cooked much longer. Browning is preferred although it is not necessary as long as it is fully cooked. It takes some practice to know when the pan is properly preheated or to determine the correct amount of heat to apply to the pan to cook it.
Step 4: Cooking the Sauce
Saute the Garlic
At around the 10 minute mark, create some space in the center of the pan and drop the minced garlic into it. If the eggplant has absorbed all the added oil, add more oil to the pan before adding the garlic. A pool of oil enveloping the garlic is necessary to thoroughly cook it. In about a minute, the garlic should be at a stage at which it is no longer raw yet just short of being burnt.
Add the Sauce
Pour in the soy and hot sauce mixture into the pan. The mixture should immediately boil. Thoroughly mix the ingredients while being careful not to crush the eggplant. Drizzle a portion of the corn starch mixture into the liquid to thicken it. Give it a few stirs and add more until a nice gravy consistency is reached. Discard the remaining corn starch as an excessive amount leads to a chalky consistency.
Step 5: Serve It!
Pour the eggplant and sauce into a serving dish. It can be served with any type of rice but I prefer jasmine because it's extra fragrant and it holds up particularly well when served with saucy foods. This dish make an excellent topping for rice as the sauce drenches the typically bland rice creating a savory and delectable combination. Even though I went through the trouble of documenting it, I was done in around 30 minutes which is a record time for any dish. I hope this instructables has made this tasty classic Chinese dish more approachable. Although the process may seem daunting it's actually not difficult to prepare food comparable in quality to that of restaurants.