If you aren’t a fan of eggplant, it’s because you haven’t had this dish yet. Sichuan cooks fry eggplant until it’s golden and buttery, then braise it briefly in a sweet-and-sour sauce. This double cooking transforms the eggplant’s rather chewy, bland, spongy flesh into buttery and tender morsels that melt in the mouth, made irresistibly heady with garlic and enlivened by hot pickled red chiles and ginger.
According to legend, the dish originated along the coast of the Yangtze River in Sichuan, where fishermen often cooked the fish they caught using a pungent mixture of chiles, ginger, and garlic. Today the “fish-fragrant” flavor is a standard in the canon of Sichuan cooking, with its distinctive hot, sour, and sweet profile.
Reprinted with permission from “The Vegan Chinese Kitchen” by Hannah Che copyright © 2022. Photographs by Hannah Che. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.
Make the sauce:
In a small bowl, whisk all the sauce ingredients until blended. Set aside.
Prep the eggplant:
Cut the eggplants lengthwise into 3-inch sections, then slice them into 1/2-inch wedges. In a large bowl, combine 3 cups (720 mL) water and 1 1/2 tablespoons salt and whisk until the salt dissolves, then submerge the eggplant and soak for 15 minutes. Drain and pat the wedges dry. Salting helps relax the flesh, reduce any bitterness, and prevent it from soaking up excessive oil.
Cook the eggplant:
Heat about 1 1/2 cups (360 mL) oil in a wok or skillet over medium-high heat. Coat the eggplant lightly in the starch. When the oil reaches 375°F (190°C), fry the eggplant in batches, flipping and turning it occasionally to cook evenly, until the edges are slightly golden and the skin is glossy purple and wrinkled, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the cooked eggplant to a paper towel–lined plate. Pour the oil into a heatproof container and reserve for another use, leaving about 1 tablespoon oil in the wok.
Return the wok to the stove over medium heat and add the chili bean paste. Stir-fry over low heat until its red oil is released, about 30 seconds. Add the garlic, ginger, and scallion whites and stir-fry until just aromatic, about 30 seconds more. Push the aromatics up one side of the wok and pour the sauce mixture into the center.
Gently fold the fried eggplant into the sauce and simmer for about 2 minutes, until the eggplant has absorbed the flavors and the liquid is thickened from the starch. Transfer to a plate, garnish with the scallion greens, and serve immediately.