yu xiang aubergine
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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.
yu xiang aubergineServings: 4Time: 45 minutes
- 50g (3 tbsp.) blanched almonds
- 50g (3 tbsp.) dried cranberries
- 2 medium aubergines
- 2 tbsp. groundnut oil plus 1 more for the sauce
- For the yu xiang sauce:
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and grated or pressed
- 2cm (1 inch) piece of ginger root, peeled and grated
- 2 tsp pickled (sushi) ginger
- 3-4 spring onions, sliced (reserve some green slices for garnish)
- 1 tbsp. chilli bean sauce (toban djan)
- 60ml (¼ cup) Shaoxing wine
- 3 tbsp. rice vinegar
- 1 tbsp. honey
- 1 tsp light soy sauce
- 2 tsp corn flour mixed with 1 tbsp. water
1. Crush the almonds roughly with a rolling pin and toast them in a dry skillet until fragrant and coloured. Plump up the cranberries by rinsing them with boiling water, drain and set aside.
2. Top and tail the aubergines and cut them into about 2 - 2.5cm dice. Toss with a little salt and set aside.
3. Heat 2 tbsp. oil in a wok or a large frying pan. Pat the aubergines dry with paper towels and add to the wok. Cook over medium heat turning and tossing frequently for about 20 minutes until the chunks are browned on all sides. Transfer the aubergine to a plate.
4. Add the last tbsp. of oil to the wok, add the garlic, both gingers and spring onions, saving some of the sliced green part for garnish. Cook for 2-3 minutes over high heat, then stir in the chilli sauce.
5. Add the wine, vinegar, honey and soy sauce and cook until it simmers. Stir in the corn flour slurry and let it thicken and bubble.
6. Return the aubergines to the wok and stir to coat in the sauce. Stir in half the almonds and half the cranberries.
7. Scrape the aubergines to a serving dish or individual bowls, sprinkle with the remaining almonds, cranberries and spring onions.