Chengdu Challenge #3: Yu Xiang Eggplant (Yu Xiang Qie Zi)
‘Fish Fragrant’ Husband Treat~~
This Sichuan classic is many people’s, including my husband, Craig’s, favorite Chinese dish. If dan dan noodles was my aha moment–You mean this is what real Chinese food actually tastes like?—yu xiang eggplant was his. We first had it on our first trip to Chengdu, in 2007, where despite all the amazing pork-centric food we gorged on, this vegetable dish stood out for its luxurious texture and perfect sweet-sour-salty-bitter-umami balance. We’ve had it many times since, both in Sichuan and at home in the U.S., from professional kitchens and from our own, and I’ve long searched for the perfect recipe.
In the U.S. it’s often called eggplant with garlic sauce, assumedly because restaurant owners don’t think “fish fragrant,” the literal meaning of yu xiang, translates. But yu xiang really means that it’s cooked in the style of fish, or with the seasonings that might be used with fish in Sichuan. This sauce is such a winner that Sichuan cooks have yu xianged just about anything; the most popular besides eggplant is pork slivers, but The Cookbooks also have recipes for chicken, tofu, lamb liver and even (English) peas. Can’t wait to try that one! And, yes, I believe yu xiang deserves to be a verb. You are definitely going to want to do it.
I think of yu xiang as semi-sweet-and-sour, as it usually includes a bit of black vinegar and sugar. For some heat, it features either chili bean paste (douban jiang) or pickled red chilies. Most recipes I’ve seen for yu xiang eggplant use the chili bean paste. Proving that there’s a wide variation to the approach for every classic dish—and that not every chef in Chengdu is genius—when I was last in Sichuan I had a plate of yu xiang qie zi that was too sweet to eat. So go easy on the sugar.
Even though it’s my husband’s favorite, I have to admit that I don’t make it frequently because it requires deep-frying the eggplant. Sometimes I shallow fry it in less oil, but let’s face it, it’s just not as good as the sinful deep-fried version, all golden on the outside and melty in the middle. I’ve made this in Chengdu, at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and with a chef friend at my business partner’s home. They always deep-fry it.
But deep-frying, in a wok, in several batches, can be time-consuming, so I definitely have to be in a loving, giving mood. Or I have to lovingly talk Craig into manning the wok—which, I should say, he always happily does.
This recipe is adapted from The Good Food of Szechwan, the first English-language Sichuan cookbook, published in 1974. The recipe strangely does not include vinegar, which for me is a must, so I added some. And I upped the amount of scallions because they not only taste good but add a shock of color. The recipe calls for a quarter-pound of pork mince in the sauce, but this luscious eggplant, already bursting with flavor, doesn’t need it, so I left that out. I also deep-fry the eggplant longer and browner than it recommends, because I like a slightly crispy exterior to contrast with the creamy middle.
The headnote to the recipe says, “Somewhat hot, this dish tastes best when the garlic is literally overpowering.” I take the word literally literally, and I don’t want to be literally overpowered by anything, so I used the minimum recommendation of 3 tablespoons. But you garlic fiends might try up to 5 tablespoons.
However, the search for the perfect yu xiang eggplant dish may be over, because I have to say this early English-language recipe for yu xiang qie zi is still one of the best.
- 1⅓ to 1½ pounds Asian eggplant (about 3 large ones), partially peeled in "stripes" or unpeeled, quartered lengthwise and cut into 3-inch pieces; or one large globe eggplant cut in similar size
- 1½ cups (or enough to deep-fry) peanut or canola oil
- 2 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Zhenjiang (Chinkiang) black vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon roasted ground Sichuan pepper
- ½ cup chicken broth
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
- 1 tablespoon chili bean paste (Pixian douban jiang)
- 5 to 6 green onions, cut into 1-inch lengths
- 2 teaspoons corn starch mixed with 4 teaspoons water
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- If you are using Asian eggplant there is no need to salt the eggplant to reduce bitterness. If you are using globe eggplant, salt the pieces lightly and let them drain in a colander for 30 minutes before frying.
- Heat a dry wok until quite hot, add oil and heat until a test bit of eggplant sizzles when it hits the oil (about 350°F). Add about a third of the eggplant pieces to the wok, but do not crowd it. Fry the pieces until lightly golden, in three batches. Remove and drain on paper towels.
- Mix the soy sauce, Zhenjiang vinegar, sugar, Sichuan pepper and chicken broth together in a measuring cup as the seasoning liquid.
- Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the oil and reheat. Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry until cooked but not browned, then add the chili bean paste and cook until fragrant. Add the seasoning liquid, give a stir, then add the green onions and cook briefly.
- Add the eggplant back to the wok and gently mix and turn it in the sauce. Stir in the cornstarch mixture and cook until sauce thickens. Add sesame oil and remove to platter.