Mapo Eggplant Noodles ft. Dried Knife-Cut Noodles
Mapo Eggplant Ragu for Your Noodles
Mapo eggplant noodles came to me in the dark of COVID yesteryear, when many restaurants were still shuttered and even outdoor dining required proof of vaccination. My roommate had generously invited me along to sample the hype of a long-time Sichuan establishment in Manhattan—my initial cause for skepticism. “It’s supposed to be good,” she assured me. “I just want to try it out.”
In our rustic COVID cabana (that staple of hastily-assembled wooden sheds replacing sidewalks and bike lanes with bare-bones seating for undaunted diners), we waited, coats bundled. It was winter; the chili heat would warm us up soon enough. We ordered làzǐjī (something like fried popcorn chicken with as many dry chilies as chicken pieces) and yúxiāng qiézi (“fish-fragrant eggplant”), among other things. I no longer recall the rest. Just that we sat waiting extra long, because what came out to us at one point was a plate of stir-fried eggplant, nothing else. No paojiao (bright, tangy, pickled chilies—the essential taste of yuxiang dishes and the one thing I’d been missing!), not even douban. We wondered when the yuxiang qiezi was going to arrive… alas.
Disappointed but full, we packed up the leftovers and returned home. There, I was so irked by the mystery dish that despite my satiety, I pulled out the eggplant to remix it. In lieu of paojiao (this was before I had The Mala Market paojiao or my own pickle jar going), I turned to mapo. In a wok, I coaxed together ground beef, the missing douban, scallions and huajiao and fire. At first taste, I felt the inexplicable urge to shovel the dish over rigatoni. Mapo eggplant pasta was a hit.
Since then, I’ve craved the soft, juicy bite of eggplant even more than tofu. If you’ve stir-fried eggplant before, you know its spongey texture soaks up oil in a stir-fry like a ShamWow. To get around this and achieve a saucy noodle topping nonetheless, I call for pre-cooking the eggplant and adding similar quantities of stock and cornstarch as one would use in traditional mapo tofu. The amount of stock also ensures more of the eggplant is covered while double-cooking, preventing the pretty purple from oxidizing into crass brown.
Keep reading for a couple eggplant-cooking tricks I rely on in this dish, both of which I got from my mama. It’s way easier and healthier than you’d expect to preserve the gorgeous purple color—no frying or special ingredients required!
Selecting ingredients for Mapo Eggplant Noodles
- Wide knife-cut noodles: I love mapo eggplant over rigatoni as a drier sauce with less stock, but since receiving The Mala Market‘s new dried knife-cut noodles, I haven’t looked back. There’s something so comforting about slurping up a bowl of thick, chewy wheat noodles. Nothing is as thick and chewy as fresh, handmade noodles, but these are amazing in their own right. They’ll live in your pantry until needed, and the rippled edges are superb at clinging to thick sauces. These actually come in two widths—I prefer the wide ones to pick up the eggplant and sauce. From the product page: “The dough undergoes a six-step process that simulates manual kneading and is naturally proofed three times to ensure a fine gluten structure. Finally, the fresh noodles are sun-dried for eight hours vs fried or baked.”
- Chinese eggplant: Look for eggplant with smooth, unblemished and tight, glossy skin. Eggplant loses its shine and develops crinkles and brown spots as it ages.
- Minced meat of choice: Unfortunately for my plant-based diet, ground beef really does make a difference in taste for mapo tofu. I rarely eat beef otherwise, though, and I didn’t miss the beefiness when I used pork in this dish: There’s a lot of sauce to drown those subtleties out. So use whatever you have on hand. Heck, use TVP (textured vegetable protein)! Just make sure you fry it right (see recipe).
- Caiziyou is a fragrant roasted rapeseed oil as fundamental to Sichuan cooking as olive oil is to Italians. The aroma and taste is unsubstitutable for making mapo tofu that tastes the same as it does in Chengdu. You won’t know what you’re missing out on until you try it!
- Lard: a mapo tofu staple that is less for taste, as many expect, and more for mouthfeel. Lard is more viscous than oil when warm and solid at room temperature, so you can imagine that in a cooked dish, its addition to the sauce results in something a little thicker. This helps when you want to slurp the noodles and not leave the sauce behind.
- Pixian doubanjiang is an aged, fermented broad bean (fava) and erjingtiao chili paste used as the base of many Sichuan dishes. It is not replaceable with Korean gochujang, which uses a soybean paste foundation, or Indonesian sambal, which is mostly chili. In the U.S. and in China, Juan Cheng brand douban is the best red-oil douban you’ll find (unless you make it yourself, like my dad’s family used to do and many Sichuan natives still do!). I like to add a touch of Pixian Douban Co.’s other longer-aged 3-year douban for added depth. You can use either, but replacing all of the douban with the 3-year aged version will make the mapo eggplant oil less red. To get the best of both worlds, I use both.
- Guizhou ground chilies color the oil and add additional heat. Be sure to cook them through in the hot oil to avoid a raw taste.
- Douchi are fermented black soybeans that pop with a rich umami. They are very salty and concentrated, so I don’t use much.
- Minced garlic is essential, but too much ginger actually masks the mapo flavor. The original house of mapo tofu in Chengdu actually doesn’t use any ginger at all in their namesake dish for this reason!
- Garlic greens (蒜苗, suànmiáo) or scallion greens add color and a touch of sweet fibrous structure. Young, freshly harvested garlic greens in the fall/winter have red stalks that are especially fragrant.
- Freshly ground Sichuan pepper (花椒, huājiāo) is essential for the titular numbing “麻” (má) flavor. If you’re using fresh huajiao like that from The Mala Market, you’ll need less. Keep in mind, this is originally a pretty ma dish, and I like to keep it that way. Feel free to omit if you don’t feel the same!
Chinese knife technique for preparing Chinese eggplant
The first step to preparing Chinese eggplant is cutting it. Mala Mama taught me the 滚刀 (gǔndāo) “roll-cut” knife technique early on. It’s the Chinese way of slicing long, hardy cylindrical roots, tubers and veggies (eggplant, carrots, taro, mountain yam, sponge gourd/luffa, cucumber, parsnip, potato, etc.)—particularly those with tough centers.
This cut maximizes surface area for better browning and quicker cooking by exposing more of the hardy center in every piece. It’s also a faster and more efficient way of processing larger and irregular cylindrical veggies, since the “rolling” motion renders proportional cuts in just one slice. This shape is a common choice for braises and stews, which benefit from hardier veggies that won’t break down to mush over long cook times. For stir-frying, roll-cut veggies retain enough dimension to easily flip and push aside, unlike thin-sliced coins and hemispheres.
To visualize the cut, place the eggplant (stem trimmed) parallel to the cutting board (see video above) so you are at 6 o’clock. Hold the knife with your hand at 5 o’clock and the tip of the knife at 11 o’clock (lefties hold the knife at 7 o’clock with the tip at 1 o’clock). The knife should be at about a 45 degree angle to the eggplant. Make the first slice, then rotate the eggplant toward you about 45 degrees without changing the orientation of the blade. Make another cut. If the veggie is small in width, you can slice from edge to edge, but for larger veggies I tend to start the slice through the middle/heart. It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfectly uniform.
Once you’ve cut the eggplant, it’s onto the easiest time-saving, gas-saving, color-preserving hack ever! If you’ve cooked with eggplant you’re probably familiar with the discolored brown skin that emerges from whatever delicious kitchen treatment you’ve subjected it to. Enter: the microwave.
Arrange the eggplant skin-side up in a bowl/plate with a heatproof plate on top, microwave for 3 minutes on high power (or until fork-tender) and bam! Perfect, gorgeously purple eggplant that stays purple through the end of cooking.
Follow-along cooking steps
- Boil a pot of water for the noodles and cook according to package instructions while starting the next step. Have personal serving bowls ready to transfer the cooked noodles into directly so they don’t overcook.
- Heat a wok over medium heat and bring the caiziyou and lard to (just) smoking. If not using caiziyou, skip the smoking step and heat the oil until shimmering.
- Add the pork and immediately break up the mince with a spatula so all the pieces get a good sear. Add a small splash of liaojiu and stir-fry the mince by pushing the pork around with the spatula, so everything “mixes” but the mince never comes out of the oil. Slowly allow the moisture to fry out of the minced pork, at least a minute, until the oil turns clear. At this point the mince should be frying and getting crispy on the edges.
- Lower the heat a bit. Add the minced doubanjiang and ground chilies and stir-fry until fragrant and the oil turns red. Add the minced garlic, ginger and douchi. Fry slowly and gently until fragrant (this may take a minute), then add HOT stock.
- Bring to a boil over medium heat. Slide the eggplant down the sides of the wok and push the eggplant around to mix, minimizing exposure above the liquid to preserve the color. Turn the heat down again and simmer gently a couple minutes to meld the sauce.
- Give the cornstarch slurry another mix until it becomes smooth again. Pour in ⅓ of the mixture, push to mix, add another ⅓ of the slurry, push to mix again, and pour in the last ⅓ of the cornstarch, pushing constantly.
- Add the chopped scallions or garlic greens and mix one last time. Turn off the heat. Top the assembled noodle bowls with the mapo eggplant. Garnish with the ground huajiao on top. Enjoy!
If you’re looking for classic Chengdu Mapo Tofu with meat, try Taylor’s adapted recipe from Sichuan (China) Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, published in China in 2010 by the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and the Sichuan Gourmet Association! For a totally vegan mapo, try my Chengdu-inspired Vegan Mapo Tofu with dried shiitake mushrooms.
Mapo Eggplant Noodles ft. Dried Knife-Cut Noodles
- 2 whole Chinese eggplants (2 large or 3 small)
- 1 serving dried knife-cut noodles, per person approx. 75 grams
- 3-4 ounces minced beef or pork if using pre-ground, give it a mince before frying!
- splash Shaoxing wine or other liaojiu (rice cooking wine)
- 1¼ cups good stock of choice, hot
- ½ tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons stock
- 2 tablespoons caiziyou (Chinese roasted rapeseed oil)
- 1 tablespoon pork lard
- 1 tablespoon 1-year aged red oil doubanjiang (Pixian Juan Cheng preferred), minced
- 1 tablespoon 3-year aged doubanjiang (Pixian Yi Feng He Hao preferred), minced
- ½ tablespoon ground chilies
- 1 teaspoon douchi (fermented black soybeans)
- 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced (2 large or 3 small)
- ½ teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
- 3-4 whole scallions (or garlic greens if available), thinly sliced, or chopped in 2 cm lengths
- ¼ teaspoon ground huajiao (Sichuan pepper) see note, for garnish, more or less to taste—more if not fresh
- Wash and dry the eggplants. To chop eggplants for stir-frying, we use the traditional "gǔndāo," roll-cut, method (see post for photos). Arrange the chopped eggplants skin-side up in a large bowl and cover with a microwave-safe lid or plate. Microwave on high 3 minutes, or until a fork easily pierces through the skin.
- Boil a pot of water for the noodles and cook according to package instructions while starting the next step. Have personal serving bowls ready to transfer the cooked noodles into so they don't overcook, and set aside.
- Heat a wok over medium heat and bring the caiziyou and lard to (just) smoking. If not using caiziyou, skip the smoking step and heat the oil until shimmering. Add the minced pork and immediately break up the mince with a spatula so all the little pieces get a good sear. Add a small splash of liaojiu and stir-fry the mince by pushing the pork around with the spatula, so everything "mixes" but the mince never comes out of the oil. Slowly allow the moisture to fry out of the minced pork, at least a minute, until the oil turns clear. At this point the mince should be frying and getting crispy on the edges. Lower the heat a bit. Add the minced doubanjiang and ground chilies and stir-fry until fragrant and the oil turns red. Add the minced garlic, ginger and douchi. Fry slowly and gently until fragrant (this may take a minute), then add HOT stock.Bring to a boil over medium heat. Slide the eggplant down the sides of the wok and push the eggplant around to mix, minimizing exposure above the liquid to preserve the color. Turn the heat down again and simmer gently a couple minutes to meld the sauce.
- Give the cornstarch slurry another mix until it becomes smooth again. Pour in ⅓ of the mixture, push to mix, add another ⅓ of the slurry, push to mix again, and pour in the last ⅓ of the cornstarch, pushing constantly.Add the chopped scallions or garlic greens and mix one last time. Turn off the heat. Top the assembled noodle bowls with the mapo eggplant. Garnish with the ground huajiao on top. Enjoy!