When we go out to eat Chinese food, one of the dishes that always calls to me is the spicy dish of Asian eggplants in a dark sauce known as Szechuan eggplant or Yu Xian Qie Zi. The long thin Asian or Oriental eggplants are cooked into a softened, silky state and immersed in a sauce laden with chili pepper, garlic and ginger.
On a whim last week, I bought Asian eggplants. Without a plan on how to use them, I gravitated to google and found myself at a Saveur post on “Chinese Spicy Garlic Eggplant,” described as an adaptation of a Grace Young recipe. Fate must have drawn me there.
I’m one of Grace’s biggest fans. The author of Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge and Breath of a Wok leads Wok Wednesdays. I joined the group in its early stages because I’d always wanted to learn to stir-fry. Now I call Grace my “wok mentor.” Under her guidance and with the encouragement of others in the group, I took timid steps, then bolder ones, into the world of stir-frying. Thanks to Grace and my $26 carbon steel wok, some of the best Chinese food I’ve had recently has been homemade.
I took the Saveur adaptation and adapted it further, even adding an ingredient (carrots) that isn’t traditionally found in this dish. I thought that the two vegetables deserved equal billing, so I call it Szechuan Spicy Eggplant and Carrots.
The sauce is still spicy, garlicky and gingery and the eggplant is still silky – it’s just that with carrots in the mix, there is now enough variation that you could eat this with fried rice and call it a whole meal. Of course, you could pair it with plain rice and a chicken or fish dish too.
A few words about eggplants. The elongated eggplants used in Asian cooking are milder and creamier when cooked than the dark purple-skinned and hefty oval eggplants that many of us associate with Italian food and ratatouille. The elongated ones come in a variety of colors. Those that are lighter skinned are typically referred to as Chinese eggplants, while those with deep purple skin are called Japanese. I used Chinese eggplants this time, but the dish would work equally well with the Japanese type.
The eggplant and carrot pieces in this recipe are described as wedges. Make them by cutting the washed and dried eggplant or peeled carrot into 2-3 inch chunks, then cutting each chunk lengthwise, into thirds if it is narrow or quarters if the chunk is on the thick side. The reason for wedges, especially for the eggplant, is that the multiple sides on each piece help soak up the sauce.
I do not own a wok steamer insert and so, for steaming the vegetables, I just used a “regular” steamer inside a pot with a tight lid. Although a wok is the traditional equipment for stir-frying, if you don’t have one, a large heavy duty skillet works too. Just be sure that you heat the pan up before you add the oil and that you keep the stovetop heat on high as you cook, so that the skillet mimics how a wok sears and cooks.
This recipe calls for salting the eggplant chunks to drain out some of the moisture before steaming them. I rinsed them off to limit the salt in the recipe – I advise doing that even though I used no more salt than the Saveur recipe called for leaving in the dish. After steaming the eggplant, you must gently dry the chunks with a paper towel or they are too moist to stir-fry well. At that point, they look rather limp, but they will revive once they are stir-fried and covered with sauce.