Sichuan cuisine is famously known for its’ fierce flavours, spicy, hot, pungent and salty. Due to the use of Sichuan peppercorns, not only are some of the dishes spicy, the peppercorns also provide a unique numbing effect which many find addictive. According to Chinese culinary records, chilli was only introduced to China about 100-200 years ago hence Sichuan cooking only started becoming spicy not too long ago. Today I am featuring one of Sichuan’s popular dishes, a braised eggplant dish cooked with pork which is rather contradicting to its’ common name. Literally translated, 鱼香茄子 is ‘fish-fragrant eggplant’. Traditionally, there is no fish used in this dish, not even fish sauce but the name of the dish was probably coined as such since the fragrant sauce used in the dish is also a popular sauce used to cook fish in the province. This eggplant dish was probably food for the commoners and due to Sichuan’s location, fish was probably too expensive of an ingredient for the commoners hence the commoners improvised and just used the popular sauce for pork and eggplant which were probably more readily available to the average household.
Most of Sichuan lies in the Sichuan basin – basically a lowland region in Southwestern China, hence the weather is mostly humid although it still has a four season climate with mostly mild winters. In line with Chinese traditional medicine belief, inhabitants of the region prefer to consume spicy and heat-inducing foods to combat their ‘internal wetness’ due to the high humidity. Sichuan cuisine may take some getting used to even for Chinese from other parts of China due to the extremely fiery flavours.
Today’s feature is eggplant cooked with pork in a pungent and aromatic sauce where the mild-tasting eggplant provides the perfect backdrop. Although there is no fish in the dish traditionally, some versions include fried salted fish bits, probably a Cantonese or South East Asian influence that in my opinion adds to the potency of this delicious and aromatic dish.
I did not use Sichuan peppercorns due to the request of my guests (some were afraid of getting sore throats!), but if you do, just add a small handful and saute together with the garlic, ginger and green onions.
4 Chinese eggplants, sliced lengthwise
1 pound pork, preferably with some fatty bits – I minced my pork by hand but you can opt for ground pork although the texture won’t be as good.
3 inch ginger, sliced thinly
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks green onions, sliced into 2 inch lengths
2 tbsps spicy bean sauce (spicy doubanjiang) – 辣豆瓣酱
2 tbsps soy sauce
2 tbsps sugar
1 1/2 tbsps black Chinkiang vinegar
1/4 cup water
2 tsps cornstarch mixed with 2 tbsps water
Lee Kum Kee is a good and reliable brand for most sauces especially when you’re away from Asia.
Firstly, mince the pork by hand (this ensures superior texture). Add about 1 tsp of corn flour to the minced pork and mix well with your hand. Set aside.
Shallow-fry the eggplant slices in hot oil for about 2-3 minutes. This step is to ensure the eggplants don’t turn into mush and also to preserve the vibrant purple colour. Remove from wok and drain on a plate.
Turn heat to low. Saute the garlic, ginger and green onion slices in the pan until fragrant. Add in the minced pork and stir around quickly. In a separate bowl or cup, mix the ingredients for the sauce together. Pour into the pan. Add in the previously fried eggplant slices and bring to a boil.
Turn the heat to medium low and cover. Allow to simmer for about 15 minutes until cooked. The sauce should be mostly absorbed by the ingredients by now. Add in the cornstarch mixture to thicken the sauce. Serve hot. Garnish with green onions if desired.