Sunday, May 18, 2008

Hunan Eggplant

Hunan Eggplant

I hated eggplants as a kid. Eggplant dishes were always mushy, watery, tasteless, just plain "bleh". Doesn't inspire much confidence in an already weird looking vegetable. Since then, I've avoided buying and cooking with eggplants. But after reading about all the flavors and ingredients of Hunan cooking in Fuchsia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, I was inspired to create a Hunan style eggplant dish. Insipid eggplant dishes are now a thing of the past! I won't lie, it doesn't look very pretty but the taste more than makes up for it. I'm not bragging here but this was hands down the best eggplant dish I've ever had. I made it for my dad when he was in town and he was surprised that eggplant can taste so good. This could be the dish to convert even a diehard eggplant hater like me.

I would only recommend using Chinese/Japanese eggplants because they are less bitter and are less watery than the globe variety that's commonly found in supermarkets. The most important flavoring ingredient is the chili bean paste so choose a good one that's made with fermented broad beans (aka fava bean) or a combination with fermented soy beans rather than only fermented soy beans. Lee Kum Kee is a good brand (it's made with both fermented broad beans and soy beans). The dried shrimp add a lot of umami flavor but feel free to omit it for a vegetarian version. Chinese picked mustard tuber, zha cai, is also called Szechuan/Sichuan picked vegetable. It's the salted and pickled stem of a type of mustard green. Rinse the vegetable before using to get rid of any excess salt and fermenting liquid.

Hunan Eggplant Ingredients

Hunan Eggplant
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 oz. zha cai, Chinese/Szechuan/Sichuan pickled mustard tubers, minced
2 Tbsp dried shrimp, minced
1/4 C chili bean sauce
3 green onions, white parts only, thinly sliced
1 tsp minced or grated ginger
4 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
4 Chinese/Japanese eggplants
2 Tbsp soy sauce (more to taste)
1/2 tsp sugar
White pepper
Salt to taste

Green onion, green part, thinly sliced

Cutting the Eggplant

Soak the dried shrimp in a few tablespoons of hot water for about 5 minutes. Drain, rinse, then mince the shrimp.

Cut the eggplant into chunks on the bias (see picture). Cut at an angle, then rotate the eggplant a half turn, then cut on the bias again, repeat.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a wok or large skillet over medium high heat. Add the chopped zha cai and minced dried shrimp, cook for a minute or two in the hot oil. Add the chili paste, green onions, minced ginger, and minced garlic and cook until the mixture is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the eggplant and stir to coat the pieces in the chili mixture, cook for a minute. Add the soy sauce, sugar, white pepper, and about a 1/4 cup of water. Cover and steam until eggplant are tender but not mushy. Stir occassionally, don't be too rough or you'll smash the eggplant. Season to taste with more soy sauce or salt.

Garnish with sliced green onions (green part only). Serve with rice.

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