Chengdu Challenge #3: Yu Xiang Eggplant (Yu Xiang Qie Zi)

 yu xiang eggplant
‘Fish Fragrant’ Husband Treat~~

This Sichuan classic is many people’s, including my husband, Craig’s, favorite Chinese dish. If dan dan noodles was my aha moment–You mean this is what real Chinese food actually tastes like?—yu xiang eggplant was his. We first had it on our first trip to Chengdu, in 2007, where despite all the amazing pork-centric food we gorged on, this vegetable dish stood out for its luxurious texture and perfect sweet-sour-salty-bitter-umami balance. We’ve had it many times since, both in Sichuan and at home in the U.S., from professional kitchens and from our own, and I’ve long searched for the perfect recipe.

In the U.S. it’s often called eggplant with garlic sauce, assumedly because restaurant owners don’t think “fish fragrant,” the literal meaning of yu xiang, translates. But yu xiang really means that it’s cooked in the style of fish, or with the seasonings that might be used with fish in Sichuan. This sauce is such a winner that Sichuan cooks have yu xianged just about anything; the most popular besides eggplant is pork slivers, but The Cookbooks also have recipes for chicken, tofu, lamb liver and even (English) peas. Can’t wait to try that one! And, yes, I believe yu xiang deserves to be a verb. You are definitely going to want to do it.

yu xiang eggplant

With Asian eggplant there’s no need to peel, salt or wait

I think of yu xiang as semi-sweet-and-sour, as it usually includes a bit of black vinegar and sugar. For some heat, it features either chili bean paste (douban jiang) or pickled red chilies. Most recipes I’ve seen for yu xiang eggplant use the chili bean paste. Proving that there’s a wide variation to the approach for every classic dish—and that not every chef in Chengdu is genius—when I was last in Sichuan I had a plate of yu xiang qie zi that was too sweet to eat. So go easy on the sugar.

Even though it’s my husband’s favorite, I have to admit that I don’t make it frequently because it requires deep-frying the eggplant. Sometimes I shallow fry it in less oil, but let’s face it, it’s just not as good as the sinful deep-fried version, all golden on the outside and melty in the middle. I’ve made this in Chengdu, at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and with a chef friend at my business partner’s home. They always deep-fry it.

But deep-frying, in a wok, in several batches, can be time-consuming, so I definitely have to be in a loving, giving mood. Or I have to lovingly talk Craig into manning the wok—which, I should say, he always happily does.

yu xiang eggplant

Worth the deep-fry effort

This recipe is adapted from The Good Food of Szechwan, the first English-language Sichuan cookbook, published in 1974. The recipe strangely does not include vinegar, which for me is a must, so I added some. And I upped the amount of scallions because they not only taste good but add a shock of color. The recipe calls for a quarter-pound of pork mince in the sauce, but this luscious eggplant, already bursting with flavor, doesn’t need it, so I left that out. I also deep-fry the eggplant longer and browner than it recommends, because I like a slightly crispy exterior to contrast with the creamy middle.

The headnote to the recipe says, “Somewhat hot, this dish tastes best when the garlic is literally overpowering.” I take the word literally literally, and I don’t want to be literally overpowered by anything, so I used the minimum recommendation of 3 tablespoons. But you garlic fiends might try up to 5 tablespoons.

However, the search for the perfect yu xiang eggplant dish may be over, because I have to say this early English-language recipe for yu xiang qie zi is still one of the best.

yu xiang eggplant

Do the yu xiang

Chengdu Challenge #3: Yu Xiang Eggplant (Yu Xiang Qie Zi)
Author: 
 
Adapted from The Good Food of Szechwan: Down-to-Earth Chinese Cooking by Robert A. Delfs, published in Japan in 1974.
Ingredients
  • 1⅓ to 1½ pounds Asian eggplant (about 3 large ones), partially peeled in "stripes" or unpeeled, quartered lengthwise and cut into 3-inch pieces; or one large globe eggplant cut in similar size
  • 1½ cups (or enough to deep-fry) peanut or canola oil
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Zhenjiang (Chinkiang) black vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon roasted ground Sichuan pepper
  • ½ cup chicken broth
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
  • 1 tablespoon chili bean paste (Pixian douban jiang)
  • 5 to 6 green onions, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • 2 teaspoons corn starch mixed with 4 teaspoons water
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
Instructions
  1. If you are using Asian eggplant there is no need to salt the eggplant to reduce bitterness. If you are using globe eggplant, salt the pieces lightly and let them drain in a colander for 30 minutes before frying.
  2. Heat a dry wok until quite hot, add oil and heat until a test bit of eggplant sizzles when it hits the oil (about 350°F). Add about a third of the eggplant pieces to the wok, but do not crowd it. Fry the pieces until lightly golden, in three batches. Remove and drain on paper towels.
  3. Mix the soy sauce, Zhenjiang vinegar, sugar, Sichuan pepper and chicken broth together in a measuring cup as the seasoning liquid.
  4. Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the oil and reheat. Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry until cooked but not browned, then add the chili bean paste and cook until fragrant. Add the seasoning liquid, give a stir, then add the green onions and cook briefly.
  5. Add the eggplant back to the wok and gently mix and turn it in the sauce. Stir in the cornstarch mixture and cook until sauce thickens. Add sesame oil and remove to platter.

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16 Responses

  1. Bonnie Foster says:

    sounds wonderful….will try it this week…..this sounds very similar to the eggplant dish that is made by a chef here in Alaska……Will get Asian eggplants today….:) thank you……

  2. Thanks so much for this recipe. I’ve tried it three times. The first, I cooked the eggplant until it was too mushy but I quickly learned from my mistake. Get the oil screaming hot first and you will get a nice brown outside with that creamy inside that makes this dish amazing! Made it last Sat for some friends who pronounced it their new “favorite dish”. I absolutely love your blog. It is great to not only cook these dished but to understand how they originated and some of the history behind them. My only request is, like my guests on Saturday evening, more please!!!!!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Jim,
      Just saw this message because I’ve been traveling (and not blogging!). So happy to hear the recipe is a winner for you! I think your kind words may inspire me to get back at it.
      Thanks so much!
      Taylor

  3. Jenn Ciapala says:

    Can’t wait to try this!!! One of my favorite dishes from China, and hard to find here in the States, especially since we moved to a tiny town of 600 way up in the mountains of Colorado. But I’m not sure where to get Sichuan pepper of douban jiang… Should they have it in Asian supermarkets in bigger cities like Denver? Any particular brands you’ve found better than others? Thanks so much!

  4. Leora says:

    This recipe (and many of the others) are wonderful! I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chongqing, China from 2010-2012. My friends and I have been looking for authentic Sichuan recipe blogs for a long time. Recently we were all reunited in Salt Lake City and made a bunch of recipes from your blog. This yuxiang qiezi recipe is easily the best I have had outside of Sichuan province. Thank you!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thank you so much, Leora! Sometimes I tell myself I don’t really have time to keep up this blog, but then I get a kind email like this and it spurs me on. I love having a community of other folks who love Sichuan food as much as I. Thanks for letting me know about your adventures with the recipes.

  5. Christopher says:

    Oh my god, this looks amazing! I am not usually fond of eggplant, but I am totally inspired to go get some and try this recipe.

    Thank you, Taylor!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      You have to try it! It’s my husband’s all-time and daughter’s current favorite. One of the most delicious Sichuan dishes, and strangely overlooked on this site. 🙂 Thanks for writing!

  6. Jim Sweeney says:

    Christopher,

    I echo your sentiments. I was never an eggplant fan either…at least until I tried this dish. It is amazing!!!! When I made it for friends one night they all thought it was one of the best dished they ever had! (as did I). Go try it, and you will love it., This dish is how I became a fan of this blog!

  7. Michael says:

    Made this tonight for my vegetarian wife and me. I was very excited to try it but was worried my wife wouldn’t like it (extremely low spice tolerance). We both loved it. That sauce is worth its weight in gold and the buttery eggplant, oh my! Thanks for this!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks so much for writing, Michael! We’ve been trying this dish at different Sichuan restaurants lately, and even they don’t always get the perfect balance of flavors. But when it’s on, it’s truly one of the greatest Sichuan dishes.

  8. beejay says:

    This is my favorite, too. I was teaching Chinese cooking classes and I got an ARC of the cookbook from the PRC’s version of the Culinary Institute of America for review. I had never heard of “Eggplant in the Style of Fish” or “Strange Flavored Eggplant” which were the two translations of the title in that. 😉 I immediately added black vinegar to my shopping list for class, wanting to expose my students to something a little different and more interesting. Of all the things I taught in that class, including Mu Shu, which I thought would be the favorite, the Yu Xiang Eggplant turned out to be the most popular.

    I particularly like dishes like this that pack in so much flavor that you can serve them to meat-eating guests without them even noticing there is no meat in the dish. I almost never order it in restaurants here (California) because all the cooks put a thick batter coating on the eggplant before frying so you get a soggy piece of eggplant inside a soggy batter. Yuck. I hate to admit that it was better on the East Coast, being a California girl myself, but it was.

    I was wondering if you’d ever tried baking the eggplant “fingers.” I’m wondering if that would work for people who don’t like to deep fry stuff. I may give this a try the next time I make it. So glad you posted this!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Beejay,
      Thanks for your interesting thoughts on yu xiang eggplant. I don’t understand why this dish is not more popular in the U.S. But I agree that it definitely should not have a thick batter coating. I also agree that it’s difficult to deep-fry eggplant properly. I know some people, like Maggie at Omnivorescookbook.com, panfry the eggplant in less oil, but I don’t know about baking it. If that works for you, do let us know!

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Do you love Sichuan food and cooking as much as we do?

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