Hot-and-Sour Eggplant (Suanla Liangban Qiezi)
Chengdu Challenge #28: Eggplant, a Girl’s Best Friend
What to send to school in your daughter’s lunchbox when she’s changing high schools as a sophomore and facing a lunchtime cafeteria where she knows no one and has no one to eat with?
Her favorite vegetable, of course. The vegetable that makes her feel happy as she eats it no matter what is going on around her or how alone she feels. For Fongchong, that vegetable is eggplant. Now, I’d rather go over there and eat lunch with her in that crowded school cafeteria until she makes some friends and has someone to sit with, but on further thought I realize eggplant might be less embarrassing company.
It’s only the second week of school, but it’s a new school, and that’s hard for anyone, and especially for someone who’s shy and unsure of her English. Like many kids in public school, Fongchong found that her first high school wasn’t a good fit. So we looked around and realized that the most diverse high school in Tennessee—full of immigrants and refugees and U.S.-born citizens of every color and creed—was right down the street. That school has one eye on Nashville and the other on the world. It not only welcomes English Language Learners, it knows how to teach them and values their cultures. It’s undergoing major expansion to welcome the quickly growing and ever-diversifying neighborhoods of South Nashville. It seems like the right fit. We hope we are right.
Until she finds her groove there, however, she has eggplant.
I wish I could say I grew the eggplants used in this classic cold eggplant dish, liangban qiezi or eggplant “salad” for lack of a better term in English, but that space in my garden has been taken over by even more chili peppers this year. But for those of you harvesting eggplant this season, this hot-and-sour starter or side is a garden-to-table winner. Or Asian-market-to-table winner, in my case.
For cold eggplant, I do suggest using long, slender Chinese or Japanese eggplant, since the skin is thinner and you don’t run the risk of the bitterness sometimes found in the bigger, globe eggplant. In three different tests, I tried boiling, roasting and, finally, steaming the eggplant, and steaming won out. Boiling made them a bit waterlogged, and roasting burned the skin, but steaming allowed me to keep the skin on and cook them until they were just done, soft but still intact, since mushy eggplant will fall apart on the plate.
My garden did pay off for the garnish, which is pickled red cayenne pepper. In this house my pickles get eaten as soon as they’re in the jar, but even a three-day pickle lends a nice tang to the proceedings and adds to the suanla of the liangban qiezi sauce—suan, or sour, from the vinegar, and la, or hot, from homemade chili oil. It’s also just a little ma, or Sichuan-pepper numbing, and tian, or sweet. But hot and sour predominate. (Do not substitute a pickled Thai chili unless you want a super hot garnish.)
The sauce includes all the usual Sichuan suspects—homemade chili oil, Sichuan pepper oil, Zhenjiang black rice vinegar—but this time I’ve also added shitake mushroom powder. This flavor enhancer is fairly new to my arsenal, but it is a powerful addition. It is exactly what it sounds like, dehydrated mushroom in powder form, and it’s a natural alternative to MSG. I personally don’t have anything against MSG, since its bad rap is unfounded, but this mushroom powder tastes great itself, so I’ve been using it occasionally. (Especially after I noticed in famed chef Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food cookbook that he uses mushroom powder in almost everything.) It is purely optional, however, since the sauce already has great flavor.
I have a few other recipes for Sichuan cold dishes—cold noodles, cold red-oil chicken, cold Sichuan pepper chicken—which are actually more room-temperature. I love Sichuan cold dishes so much that if I have a few to choose from I rarely make it to the hot dishes on a restaurant menu.
Fongchong loves this one so much she piles it on warm rice and calls it lunch. This friend is both flexible and reliable.
One note about plating. It’s hard to make steamed eggplant look enticing on the plate, which is why I came up with this modernist jigsaw design. Pro food stylist I am not, but you’ll notice in the photo below that I was inspired by my mother-in-law’s gorgeous watercolor collage. I later realized the eggplant batons need to be smaller, only about 1/2-inch wide, to better absorb the sauce. In any case, you’ll want to let it sit awhile at room temperature to soak up the hot and sour. It will be worth the wait!
For more cold dishes, try my Mouthwatering ‘Saliva Chicken’ (Koushuiji, 口水鸡) and Jisi Liangmian (鸡丝凉面): Cold Noodles ft. Shredded Chicken or Michelle Zhou’s Crunchy Lotus Root Salad!
Hot-and-Sour Eggplant (Suanla Liangban Qiezi)
- 1 pound Chinese eggplant
- 3 tablespoons chili oil with flakes
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan pepper oil
- 4 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
- 4 tablespoons Zhenjiang (Chinkiang) black vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground Sichuan pepper see note
- ½ teaspoon mushroom powder (optional)
- 3 scallions, finely chopped
- 1 pickled or fresh red chili pepper (cayenne or Fresno), thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon chili oil with flakes for garnish
- Trim the top and bottom from the eggplants, then cut them in half horizontally and vertically. Place the eggplant pieces on a plate or bowl and steam in a steamer for about 20 minutes. They should be completely soft, but not mushy or falling apart.
- Remove the eggplant from the steamer and let it cool a bit before cutting the pieces in half again vertically. You want long batons 1/2 to 1-inch wide. Arrange them nicely on a serving plate.
- Combine the 3 tablespoons chili oil with flakes, Sichuan pepper oil, soy sauce, black vinegar, sugar, ground Sichuan pepper and mushroom powder (if using) together in a measuring cup. Pour the sauce over the eggplant, making sure all the pieces get some.
- Garnish the eggplant with the scallions and red chili pepper rings. Drizzle with a bit more chili oil with flakes. Allow the dish to rest at room temperature for at least half an hour, so the eggplant absorbs some of the sauce before serving.
I know it’s a pain in the ass but ever since I started making Yu Xiang Eggplant, I’ve been obsessed with deep frying eggplant. It produces a lovely creamy texture that you can’t get any other way and makes it feel rich and luxurious.
There’s a really great cold eggplant dish with garlic, mint and yogurt from the moro cookbook that I also make that also uses fried eggplant.
I thought about deep-frying, but it’s the one method I didn’t try because A) it’s not traditional and B) it’s “a pain in the ass”! But I have no doubt that it would be absolutely delicious. Maybe next time…
Can you describe the difference between chili Oil and chili oil with flakes? I have LaYu chili oil but not sure what with flakes means. Could I use the Grandmothers chili Oil? What do you think about making this with grilled eggplant?
Yet another way that the eggplant could be prepared! I did not trying grilling because it is not traditional for this dish, but I’m sure it would be delicious.
Homemade chili oil usually has flakes:
Lao Gan Ma doesn’t have enough oil, but you could use it AND chili oil to get oil and flakes.
Been following your delicious blog for about a year now. Great stuff! It’s also great to read Fong Chong’s story and her reactions to things we take for granted in America. I am also a serious baseball fan and follow the game pretty closely; shout out for Mookie Betts, Nashville native and current starting right fielder for the Boston Red Sox; Mookie’s an Overton alumni and was a baseball and basketball standout while there. Just a bit of info about a really talented Overton alumni and athlete.
That’s so great that you know of this Overton alum. I’m not a baseball watcher, but I know the school is very proud of him. Thanks for reading and caring about the food AND the story.
Made this tonight – served over warm brown rice and called it dinner. ? So. Good. The flavor is amazing. Thank you for this recipe!
Thank YOU for letting me know you made it and liked it.
Absolutely delicious! This is one of the dishes I grew up almost eating every week and I never get tired of it! The addition of fresh pickled chili pepper is such as nice touch. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks, Yi! It’s nice to meet you through Red Cook and know about your great blog too.