Americans lose weight on the Chinese diet. These words of wisdom were readily offered by many of my students when I was an English teacher in south China. I was already spry when I moved overseas at 23. In the States I walked and cycled everywhere and ate a relatively healthy diet, so I wasn’t looking to drop weight. However, I had no idea I’d pack on the pounds during my nine months in China. That would be the logical conclusion if you eat your way around the country.
When I wasn’t being escorted to formal meals where my foreign affairs officer plied me with plate after plate of Chinese delicacies and prodded me to smile as he made business deals with our all-male dinner crew, my university students loved to go out with me for inexpensive meals to share their favorite regional dishes and to chat in English and Putonghua (Mandarin).
On the rare occasion I’d venture out for a solo meal, I always ended up ordering qiezi bao, an eggplant clay pot dish that was simmered over the fire with slivers of dried fish and a rich, oily sauce. For three yuan (what was equivalent to 40 cents USD at the time), I would get a bowl of rice and the clay pot and make my way through that savory, melt-in-your-mouth eggplant until any remnant of homesickness was smothered by gingery oil. Qiezi bao was the dish that coaxed me back to the occasional seafood dish. That was also the dish that helped me gain 10 pounds in a matter of months.
I have searched high and low for that same eggplant preparation in the U.S., but none of the restaurants I’ve patronized have taken much effort to recreate this dish. Fortunately, Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice contains eggplant recipes I’ve been itching to try. The only reason I haven’t made all of the recipes yet is because my husband detests eggplant. Don’t worry. I wouldn’t allow a true moratorium on one of the best vegetables on the planet. We do, however, only have so much time in the day for cooking. Usually we make an effort to find food we both enjoy when we’re eating together and save our unique food preferences for days when we’re not cooking for each other.
As soon as I heard Cameron would be out of town for the week for a conference, I cracked open the Dunlop’s book to the chapter featuring eggplant and started making a grocery list. The Shanghai eggplant dish featured in this post is not the exact qiezi bao recipe, but it does include ingredients you should be able to find at a regular supermarket. Bear in mind that this recipe calls for deep frying the eggplant. I usually avoid recipes that call for cooking with too much oil, but for my long-lost vegetable friend, the eggplant, I’ll make an exception.
Speaking of friends, my favorite Denver couple, Mark and Kate, not only share my love for Chinese food but also respect the glory that is eggplant. They came over for dinner earlier this week and brought along a bowl of lemony kale that complemented the rich eggplant and Bear Paw tofu dishes I made. Mark also brought along his camera (he’s an independent photographer as well as a photographer for Governor Hickenlooper). As you can see by the image that precedes the recipe below, Mark has a knack for food photography. If only I were rich enough to pay him for his kick-butt photography skills.
Shanghai Home-Style Eggplant: Jia Chang Qie Zi
(adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice)
Serves 3 as a side
– 2 Japanese eggplants
– 1 cup plus 2 TBS cooking oil
– 4 TBS vegetarian stock
– 1/2 TBS light soy sauce
– 1/2 tsp dark soy sauce (I only had low-sodium soy sauce so I used for light and dark soy sauce.)
– 1 tsp sugar
– A few thin slices of peeled ginger
– 1 spring onion, green parts only, finely sliced (I hate to waste the white bulb, so I included in this recipe.)
1. Cut the eggplant in half lengthways, then into 3 sections. Now cut each section lengthways into about 3 chunky strips. Sprinkle lightly with salt, mix well, and leave to drain in a colander for 30 minutes.
2. Heat a wok over high flame. Add the oil and heat to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Add the eggplant in a couple of batches and deep-fry until tender and golden. Set aside to drain on paper towels.
3. Combine the stock, soy sauce/s, and sugar in a small bowl.
4. Pour all but 1 TBS oil into a heatproof container and return the wok to a high flame. Add the ginger and sizzle briefly until you can smell its fragrance. Give the stock mixture a stir and pour it into the wok. Return the eggplant to the wok and stir briskly until the liquid has largely evaporated. Then stir in the spring onions and serve.
If you’re looking to make a vegan Chinese feast, you could start with this Smacked Cucumber in Garlic Sauce Salad before serving up this eggplant dish alongside Blanched Choy Sum with Sizzling Oil, and sweet and spicy Sichuan Tofu.