Spicy Szechwan Eggplant
WHOOO-eeeee, that’s some spicy eggplant. I like to think of this as my Rhinestone Cowboy of Asian vegetable side dishes. I’ve kept it in regular rotation for pretty much the last 5 years or so, or about the same time that our local grocery stores started carrying Asian eggplants and I found out what “fish sauce”, “mirin”, and “chili sauce” were……now, three indispensable items that I can’t live without. Well, I suppose that I could live without them (I’m really quite adaptable, I’ve always thought) but I’d really rather not. There now. That’s fair.
Oh, but why do I make it so much? Well, a couple of reasons.
1. It takes me 10 minutes from start to finish.
2. I’ve fed this dish to more than one (okay, more than five) self-professed eggplant haters over the years, and one by one they’ve started to come around.
3. Spicy food speeds up the metabolism. Hey, I know, grasping at straws, right? Well, what of it? I’ll take whatever help I can get.
4. It takes me 10 minutes from start to finish. Yup. That deserves to be repeated.
The cupboards were bare when I was driving home from work the other day, so I stopped by a grocery store which was on the way. All that I needed were an assortment of random fruits and vegetables that could get us through the week, and maybe something to make for dinner that night. Unfortunately, the first store I passed was also my favorite Asian supermarket, so rather than spending $15 buying some grapes and zucchini, I spent $150 replenishing my stock of Asian condiments and buying everything my eyes happened to fall upon, from a whole Silkie chicken (more on that one another time) to more Chinese sausage than we will ever be able to eat. Ever.
I trundled through the door, weighed down by about 6 cloth bags that were groaning at the seams, and met with this:
Mike: “WHAT DID YOU GET, WHAT DID YOU GET, WHAT DID YOU GET (me)??!”
Tina: “I was just shopping down at T&T.”
Mike: “Oh. You went to the Asian market. Oh. Huh.
One reason that I often just call this “Asian eggplant” is that despite my best efforts, I can never spell “Szechwan”. I come up with some close approximations, and some borderline mistakes like Szchewan, Sechzwan, or Schezwan, but I only ever get it right when I remember to do a spell check. Really, all that I know is that there’s a ‘z’ and a ‘w’ in there somewhere. Just like a goldfish, the rest is always a mystery to me.
Szechwan cuisine is characterized by its bold intensity. Compared to many other regional variations, the salty is saltier, the sweet is sweeter, and most importantly, the spice is spicier. Szechwan cuisine is often fiery hot, and it’s well characterized as one of the spiciest variations on Chinese cuisine. Just think of Szechwan pink peppercorns as compared to black peppercorn, or spicy pepper laden Szechwan noodles compared to chubby slick Shanghai noodles. The Szechwanese have spoken, and they’ve said, “More chili please.” But it’s more like “更多 辣椒 请” when they say it.
Spicy Szechwan Eggplant
Serves 4-6 as a side dish
- 3 large Asian eggplant
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 2 fat cloves garlic
- 1″ chunk ginger
- 1/4 cup mirin
- 1 tbsp shao xing *
- 1 tbsp vegetarian fish (flavored) sauce **
- 2 tbsp Chinese chili garlic paste ***
- 3 scallions, roughly chopped
* Shao Xing is a dry Chinese cooking wine. If you can’t find Shao Xing (also known as Chiao Hsing, Shiao Hsing, etc) you can substitute in a dry sherry.
** Ha! No, of course I didn’t use the vegetarian fish flavored sauce. That’s because I’m not a vegetarian. If I were a vegetarian, or if this was being made for a vegetarian, I would splash out the $2.50 and buy a bottle though.
*** Chili garlic paste is both very garlicky and very chililicious. If you don’t have a chili garlic paste you could substitute with your favorite nasty-hot chili sauce (like a Sambal Oelek or a Sriracha) and add an extra clove or two of garlic and a spicy Thai birds eye (or other heinously hot pepper) to the mix. If you’re nervous about how spicy this dish will be (note: very) you may want to start with only 1 tbsp of chili garlic paste, taste the eggplant when it is mostly done cooking, and add more as you feel it needs it…..and I always feel it needs it.
Top and tail your eggplant before slicing it on alternating angles to make fat wedges. An easy way to do this, if you don’t like weaving drunkenly back and forth with your knife, is to slice down at an angle, give the eggplant a quarter turn and then slice down again. Keep turning and making your angled slices as you go along. The very fat pieces should be cut vertically in half so that everything is more or less of a similar size.
Finely mince the garlic and ginger before crushing them into a paste (or just use a rasp, like lazy ol’ me). Heat the sesame oil over a moderately high heat and add the garlic and ginger, stirring until it becomes fragrant and just starts to turn from that light straw color into a golden yellow.
Add the mirin, Shao Xing, fish sauce and chili garlic sauce. The mixture will quickly start to bubble and simmer away. Let it do this for about 2 minutes, or until the sauce is starting to thicken and turn slightly syrupy.
Add the eggplant and start tossing them around to coat each piece in the mixture.
When the eggplant is mostly softened but not entirely finished cooking through, add 2/3 of the chopped green onion. Continue to saute the mixture for just another minute or two until the green onion has softened and wilted.
Sprinkle the remaining green onion on top and serve hot.
From time to time this li’l side of ours gets turned into a lazy and proteinless weeknight entree, but when I’m sorely tempted to eat it in large amounts (which I am often wont to be) and it’s going to be the main event rather than an aggressively bold wingman, I’ll usually decrease the amount of chili sauce. You know, so it’s only fiery hot as opposed to oh-god-satan-stole-my-tongue kind of hot.
So……I kind of do this thing whereby when I serve this dish over white rice or on the side of Chinese food I refer to it as “Spicy Szechwan Eggplant”. But I also serve it on the side of a coconut chicken curry and call it “Spicy Thai Eggplant” (which it’s not, but it does go swimmingly with Thai food). And I serve it alongside Udon noodles in a shiro-miso broth and call it “Spicy Japanese Eggplant”. Basically, I’ll just give it up for whichever hot pseudo-Asian genre I’m cooking up that night, but it always works remarkably well.
And anybody at the table who may be tempted to call me out on my propensity to misrepresent this dish whenever possible, well, frankly they usually can’t – they’re too busy mopping up sweat, drying weeping eyes and blowing their nose. My kind of vegetable – the eggplant takes care of it’s own.