Roasted Chili Eggplant (Liangban Qiezi, 凉拌茄子) from Chengdu’s Ying Garden
Published May 06, 2018, Updated Oct 22, 2023
Great Sichuan Restaurant Recipes: Green Food vs. Red Food
When people think of Sichuan food, they think of red. The three ingredients most identified with the cuisine—red chilies, red Sichuan peppercorns and red chili bean paste—present a united front of red in the bowl or plate when they are all in use. But what the West tends to forget is that Sichuan has some magnificent green food. Not just green leafy vegetables, which make up the majority of any full meal, but green chilies, green Sichuan pepper, green onions and fresh coriander (cilantro), which make an appearance and provide the punch in Sichuan cuisine as often as red ingredients do in Chengdu.
I noticed this particularly on our most recent trip to Sichuan, where so many dishes we ordered or locals ordered for us were green. Pork, chicken, rabbit or frog slivers came stir-fried with an abundance of long, thin slices of fresh green chilies. Our friend and generous apartment provider (all we had to do was cat-sit!), Justin Hoke noted that the erjingtiao chili, the only real local Sichuan chili, is grown and used all year round in Chengdu, but only ripens to its familiar red in the fall. The rest of the time it is used in almost everything as a truly perfect green chili—thin and thin-skinned enough to be quickly stir-fried and moderately but not overly hot.
We also had green bean dishes, using pickled and/or fresh beans, and garlicky cucumber salad, the dish Fongchong orders at every meal. But perhaps the most memorable green dish was one we had at Ying Garden, a total gem of a restaurant on a gorgeously landscaped terrace of an older business building in downtown Chengdu.
I owe this discovery to our friend Jordan Porter, another local culinary expert, who listed Ying Garden among his favorites in the city a while back. His recommendation of such an upscale place says a lot about its genuineness, considering his clear preference for Chengdu’s “fly restaurants”—mom-and-pop places that draw patrons like flies despite their often subpar decor and hygiene. Of course we all know that’s where the best food is in China and some other Asian countries, but sometimes you actually do find stellar food in higher-end places. And those places have the luxury of being able to afford to care about meticulous sourcing and food preparation without compromise or shortcuts.
Jordan introduced us via WeChat to the owner of Ying Garden, Nancy Xiong, and Fongchong and I spent a magical afternoon in her foodie oasis. The green dish that stole my heart at Ying Yuan was a cold steamed eggplant dish (liangban qiezi) swimming in all of those green aromatics. Sichuanese know their way around eggplant—see stir-fried yuxiang eggplant and the more-familiar version of cold eggplant, in a black vinegar sauce—but I hadn’t had it this way before.
It was so green! So spring! We ate it under an April sun, alongside a vibrant red dish of douban yu— a whole catfish, intricately and miraculously carved so that most bites came without bones, swimming in a chili bean paste sauce that turned out to be sweet-and-sour. The restaurant makes its own doubanjiang, using it young and bright-red, as restaurants often prefer. It also sells its douban, but, unfortunately for us, it was sold out in April. They make it only once a year, after the fall harvest of red erjingtiao chilies, and it sells out by Spring Festival. Nancy did let us try an experimental douban they had made in which they had substituted green Sichuan pepper for the chilies—big fat fermented fava beans with bits of green Sichuan pepper still on the vine. Super surprising and tasty.
Nancy owns Ying Garden with her sister, Xiong Ying, who opened the first one in the countryside in an area of farmhouse restaurants called San Sheng Xiang, or Flower Town. They are soon to open a third one farther out of Chengdu on a tea farm.
Her sister lives the country life, while Nancy holds down the urban restaurant cum salon, a sprawling space that includes not only the inside and outside dining rooms but tea/coffee house, book shop/library, yoga room, and art-and-clothing boutique. Yes, it’s upscale, but not in the way of many luxury Chinese restaurants that are designed to serve sharks fin soup to Party members with expense accounts. Those restaurants are suffering now that Xi Jinping has cracked down on corruption and conspicuous consumption. But Ying Yuan is thriving because its moderately pricey food is designed for the new wave of wealthy entrepreneurs who care more about where their food comes from than how much it costs.
Surprisingly rare among Chengdu restaurants, the sisters and their chefs also make (and sell) their own sausage and bacon (the curing meats hang along the trellised entryway in winter), beef jerky, braising spice blend and stinky tofu. They also make creative fermented rice wines. The sisters found a recipe for wine made from pine trees in an ancient cookbook and gave it a go—zingy and herbal, it could be “a thing.” And even if they don’t make an ingredient, they know who did, including honey harvested by friends, red/brown sugar from a specific Yunnan village, and super-premium red Sichuan peppercorns they’ve retrieved from the mountain growers themselves.
The more Nancy and I talked, the more we found we had in common. She too is a former newspaper arts journalist, having worked for Sichuan Daily (circulation 8 million!) for many years. Her second act is devoted to food and the community of like-minded locals that food allows her to build. Travelers from other parts of China also seek out her restaurants, though she says they haven’t really been discovered by Westerners. So I invite you to discover them! You may not be able to read the menu, but ask for Nancy’s recommendations and you’ll feel instantly at home. (See address below.)
Or if you won’t be in Chengdu anytime soon, discover Ying Yuan through its divine liangban qiezi. Nancy graciously shared the recipe with me, giving full credit to Chef Guo Fan, who has been a cold-dish chef for 13 years. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Sichuan’s cold dishes are my favorite. They are where you often get the most intricate and interesting flavor combinations.
Here you have roasted green chilies, cilantro, green onion, green Sichuan pepper oil and garlic, not to mention supporting players such as soy sauce, vinegar, oyster sauce and an ingredient that was a mystery to me: laxianlu (辣鲜露, làxiānlù). Turns out this is a “chili liquid seasoning” similar to the internationally beloved condiment Maggi, but made by Knorr. I could not find this product, which seems to be made for the China market, so I just used regular Maggi and a bit of chili oil.
But while Maggi is an accent in the recipe, the erjingtiao chili is the flavor star. I’m so enamored of these chilies I harvested some seeds from fresh ones in Chengdu, snuck them home and started some seedlings for this summer’s garden. I’m also growing some from the seeds of the dried red erjingtiao chilies we sell at The Mala Market. But short of growing your own erjingtiao, you’ll have to use a different, unrelated green chili.
No chilies widely available in the U.S. are as long and slender as erjingtiao, which is translated as “two golden strips.” Nor do any taste the same. Bell, Italian and shishito peppers are too mild, and most other fresh chilies are too spicy. To me, erjingtiao falls somewhere between poblano and jalapeno on the heat scale, so I tried a combination of those two. Because jalapeno heat varies wildly, you might want to stick with poblanos, which have a more reliably mild heat, but I wanted a bit of heat. They are roasted and chopped in this recipe, so I just followed the procedure for roasting poblanos for Mexican food—charring the peppers over a stovetop flame until the skin is blackened.
As for the eggplant, long, thin Asian eggplant is best, preferably young and small. I actually found a long greenish-purple eggplant at my international market labeled as Filipino eggplant. It’s green color is ideal for this green dish, but the purple ones are also perfect. The chef gave a great tip about steaming eggplant, instructing us to add the eggplant to the steamer after the water has come to a boil, not before, or the skin will be tough.
This is not a dish where numbing ma or spicy la stand out, but where they blend harmoniously with the other flavors. Super savory but not particularly spicy, Ying Garden’s cold eggplant will be your ultimate proof that Sichuan does green food as well as it does red.
P.S. My sauce separated the first time I made this dish, which you can see in the photo above. This let me know I needed to whisk the sauce ingredients together to emulsify them. The sauce as I made it was also too garlicky, which suggested the need for taming that harshness with a vinegar soak. So I remade just the sauce the following night and we ate it on store-bought roasted chicken as a cold chicken dish. And it worked! Go green!
⇒ Ying Garden: No. 37 East Yulong Street, 3rd Floor, Jinjiang District, Chengdu
Phone (within China): 028-86788498
WeChat ID: nancyxiong123
Roasted Chili Eggplant (Liangban Qiezi, 凉拌茄子) from Chengdu's Ying Garden
- 1 pound long Asian eggplant
- ½ pound mildly spicy green chili, such as poblano (2 poblanos)
- 1 tablespoon minced (not pressed) garlic (about 4 medium cloves)
- 4 tablespoons black rice vinegar (Baoning preferred)
- 6 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
- 6 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- 2-3 tablespoons green Sichuan pepper oil (qinghuajiao or tengjiao oil)
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon Maggi seasoning sauce
- 1 tablespoon chili oil (don't include flakes)
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 green onions, green parts only, thinly sliced
- Bring water to a boil in a steamer. Cut the eggplant in half horizontally and vertically, place in a bowl and carefully place bowl into steamer when water begins to boil. Steam for about 20 minutes. You want the eggplant to be luxuriously soft and creamy. Remove from steamer and let cool, then cut each piece into bite-size pieces.Instant Pot instructions: Place steamer trivet in bottom of pot and place bowl of eggplant (prepped as above) on trivet, making sure steam can circulate around it. Cook on Steam setting for 12 minutes with natural release of 5 minutes.
- While eggplant is steaming, roast the green chilies. This can be done directly over a stovetop fire, in a hot, dry pan or under a broiler. Turn the chilies so that all of the skin gets charred and the chili blackens almost entirely, as larger chilies will need to cook that long to be roasted. Put blackened chilies in a plastic bag and let them sweat for a few minutes so the skin will be easier to remove. When cool, peel the skin off, remove the seeds and mince the chilies finely.
- In a bowl or large mixing cup add the garlic and vinegar and let the garlic soak for a few minutes to tame the heat. Then add the other sauce ingredients: oil, soy sauce, Sichuan pepper oil, oyster sauce, Maggi seasoning, chili oil and sugar. Whisk ingredients together until well blended and emulsified. Add minced green chilies to the sauce.
- Arrange room-temp eggplant pieces in a shallow serving bowl and pour the green chili sauce over them. Garnish with green onion. Serve at room temperature.
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