Yu xiang qie zi, Sichuan stir fried aubergine in ‘fish fragrant’ sauce has no fish or fish sauce among the ingredients but what it has is a divine amount of umami and a depth of flavour.
Yu xiang means fish sauce, nobody knows why as the seasoning, the dishes or the sauce itself doesn’t remotely involve fish. Classic foodstuffs enwrapped in yu xiang are pork, fish and – of all things – aubergine, yu xiang qie zi.
China grows about 60% of all aubergines produced worldwide and the plant is used commonly but I was somehow unaware of those facts, hence ‘of all things’. Aubergines are associated with Middle Eastern, South European and North African cuisines in my mind: parmigianas, moussakas and babaganoushes rather than chow meins or mapos. Just shows – we learn something every day!
I usually reach to the roots for ethnic recipes: found a Spanish one for tarta di Santiago, got my moussaka instructions from a Greek friend etc. I’m not a purist – as I (too) often say, you don’t have to be Italian to make a good pizza (ha!). But with intricate oriental dishes, especially ones called mysteriously ‘fish sauce’ and yet involving no fish, I’d better learn from the natives.
And yet the yu xiang recipe below that has become a firm favourite comes from Times on Saturday rather than a Ken Hom cookbook. I was immediately suspicious of the authenticity of cranberries and almonds and subsequent research of ethnic recipes confirmed my fears: they are about as Sichuan as fish and chips. The rest is kosher enough: toban djan and ginger, Shaoxing wine and garlic, spicy but not fiery, vegetarian but substantial. Suspicions put aside, I made the dish first time closely by the book, cranberries and all.
And funnily enough the non-authentic elements are what I absolutely love about yu xiang eggplant as I make it: the crunch of the roughly chopped almonds and the sweetness-tartness of the cranberries. Modifying the Times recipe, I use only one wok and start the cooking by frying aubergines as they take a loooong while to brown properly all over – and you want them to be cooked nicely through.
I keep promising myself to try cooking different ingredients in yu xiang sauce: pork or fish, but the aubergines are so irresistible that I pick them every time.