Chengdu Challenge #28: Hot-and-Sour Eggplant Salad (Suan La Liang Ban Qie Zi)
Eggplant, a Girl’s Best Friend~~
What to send to school in your daughter’s lunchbox when she’s changing high schools as a sophomore and facing a lunchtime cafeteria where she knows no one and has no one to eat with?
Her favorite vegetable, of course. The vegetable that makes her feel happy as she eats it no matter what is going on around her or how alone she feels. For Fong Chong, that vegetable is eggplant. Now, I’d rather go over there and eat lunch with her in that crowded school cafeteria until she makes some friends and has someone to sit with, but on further thought I realize eggplant might be less embarrassing company.
It’s only the second week of school, but it’s a new school, and that’s hard for anyone, and especially for someone who’s shy and unsure of her English. Like many kids in public school, Fong Chong found that her first high school wasn’t a good fit. So we looked around and realized that the most diverse high school in Tennessee—full of immigrants and refugees and U.S.-born citizens of every color and creed—was right down the street. That school has one eye on Nashville and the other on the world. It not only welcomes English Language Learners, it knows how to teach them and values their cultures. It’s undergoing major expansion to welcome the quickly growing and ever-diversifying neighborhoods of South Nashville. It seems like the right fit. We hope we are right.
Until she finds her groove there, however, she has eggplant.
I wish I could say I grew the eggplants used in this classic cold eggplant dish, or “salad” for lack of a better term in English, but that space in my garden has been taken over by even more chili peppers this year. But for those of you harvesting eggplant this season, this hot-and-sour starter or side is a garden-to-table winner. Or Asian-market-to-table winner, in my case.
For cold eggplant, I do suggest using long, slender Chinese or Japanese eggplant, since the skin is thinner and you don’t run the risk of the bitterness sometimes found in the bigger, globe eggplant. In three different tests, I tried boiling, roasting and, finally, steaming the eggplant, and steaming won out. Boiling made them a bit waterlogged, and roasting burned the skin, but steaming allowed me to keep the skin on and cook them until they were just done, soft but still intact, since mushy eggplant will fall apart on the plate.
My garden did pay off for the garnish, which is pickled red cayenne pepper. In this house my pickles get eaten as soon as they’re in the jar, but even a three-day pickle lends a nice tang to the proceedings and adds to the suan la of the sauce—suan, or sour, from the vinegar, and la, or hot, from homemade chili oil. It’s also just a little ma, or Sichuan-pepper numbing, and tian, or sweet. But hot and sour predominate. (Do not substitute a pickled Thai chili unless you want a super hot garnish.)
The sauce includes all the usual Sichuan suspects—homemade chili oil, Sichuan pepper oil, Zhenjiang black rice vinegar—but this time I’ve also added shitake mushroom powder. This flavor enhancer is fairly new to my arsenal, but it is a powerful addition. It is exactly what it sounds like, dehydrated mushroom in powder form, and it’s a natural alternative to MSG. I personally don’t have anything against MSG, since its bad rap is unfounded, but this mushroom powder tastes great itself, so I’ve been using it occasionally. (Especially after I noticed in famed chef Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food cookbook that he uses it in almost everything.) It is purely optional, however, since the sauce already has great flavor.
I have a few other recipes for Sichuan cold dishes—cold noodles, cold red-oil chicken, cold Sichuan pepper chicken—which are actually more room-temperature. I love Sichuan cold dishes so much that if I have a few to choose from I rarely make it to the hot dishes on a restaurant menu.
Fong Chong loves this one so much she piles it on warm rice and calls it lunch. This friend is both flexible and reliable.
One note about plating. It’s hard to make steamed eggplant look enticing on the plate, which is why I came up with this modernist jigsaw design. Pro food stylist I am not, but you’ll notice in the photo above that I was inspired by my mother-in-law’s gorgeous watercolor collage. I later realized the eggplant batons need to be smaller, only about 1/2-inch wide, to better absorb the sauce. In any case, you’ll want to let it sit awhile at room temperature to soak up the hot and sour. It will be worth the wait!
- 1 pound Chinese eggplant
- 3 tablespoons chili oil with flakes
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan pepper oil
- 4 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
- 4 tablespoons Zhenjiang (Chinkiang) black vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon mushroom powder (optional)
- 3 scallions, finely chopped
- 1 pickled or fresh red chili pepper (cayenne or Fresno), thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon chili oil with flakes for garnish
- Trim the top and bottom from the eggplants, then cut them in half horizontally and vertically. Place the eggplant pieces on a plate or bowl and steam in a steamer for about 20 minutes. They should be completely soft, but not mushy or falling apart.
- Remove the eggplant from the steamer and let it cool a bit before cutting the pieces in half again vertically. You want long batons about 1-inch wide. Arrange them nicely on a serving plate.
- Combine the 3 tablespoons chili oil with flakes, Sichuan pepper oil, soy sauce, black vinegar, sugar and mushroom powder (if using) together in a measuring cup. Pour the sauce over the eggplant, making sure all the pieces get some.
- Garnish the eggplant with the scallions and red chili pepper rings. Drizzle with a bit more chili oil with flakes. Allow the dish to rest at room temperature for at least half an hour, so the eggplant absorbs some of the sauce before serving.
Updated October 2016