Eggplant, aubergine, brinjal, whatever the name, my boys don’t dig it. Not really. I’ve tried eggplant recipes of all kinds; fried, baked, grilled, roasted, they eat it but reluctantly. All this changed when I tried Maggie Zhu’s Chinese-style eggplant recipe from her beautiful site https://omnivorescookbook.com Her fried eggplants in a syrupy soy sauce inspired me to try my own version of the eggplant recipe.
Eggplants are notorious for soaking up oil when fried.You can go through many cups of oil and end up with a greasy dish of eggplants. Maggie’s recipe follows a slightly different method for preparing and cooking the eggplant so that you get deliciously browned chunks of vegetable without using copious quantities of oil. I attempted her technique, which worked brilliantly and I’m sure I used less than half the amount of oil I would’ve otherwise used. The days of scouring the Internet for how to cook eggplant using less oil, are behind me. This method will work like a charm even for baked eggplant recipes like eggplant Parmesan, which I don’t make as much as I’d like to just because it means cooking with at least a cup of oil.
How to prepare and cook the eggplant
I went with small eggplants, firm, little, shiny purple orbs that I only had to quarter to get thick wedges. You can of course, cook with the large ones as well. A word of warning – worms love eggplants, so make sure to lookout for browned holes or stains- a sure sign of resident pests. Once sliced, soak the wedges in wide bowl, making sure they are completely covered with salted water. This stops them from turning black and removes any bitterness. I soaked the eggplants for 20 minutes in lightly salted water. Then dried them on kitchen towels ensuring that were no traces of moisture on the eggplant wedges. Do not wash the eggplants after soaking. Toss the dry eggplants in a couple of teaspoons of cornflour before frying. The cornflour provides a light dusting on the surface and this way, they absorb much less oil and crisp up nice and golden on the outside when fried in just a few tablespoons of oil.
I mentioned that I made my version of Maggie’s recipe; this I did by adding three kinds of chillies and modifying the quantities of some of the ingredients to better suit my taste. The original recipe was missing some heat and I had 3 very differently flavoured chillies, which really lent some zing to the dish. On a recent holiday to the north east of the country, an area famed for hot peppers, I picked up a precious stash of Naga or ghost peppers (bhut jholokia, one of the top 3 hottest pepers in the world)) and some bird’s eye chillies that I was dying to cook with. Ghost peppers have a deep smoky aroma and are very very hot, so I only put maybe 1/6th of a chilli in the eggplant. I was going more for the smokiness rather than the firepower. The bird’s eye brought heat that was a much needed counterpoint to the sweetness of the dark soy and the salty funk of the fish sauce. The third chilli was the red Bhavnagari chilli available in winters only. Fire engine red and mildly hot, these tempting beauties are normally stuffed and pickled in most parts of India.
Obviously, all these peppers are local and you may not find them where you are. So you can substitute not only the types of chillies but also the quantities in the recipe. Use only one kind of pepper if you prefer but make sure it has some heat to balance the rest of the flavours.
Beside preparing the vegetable for frying, the other important aspect of this eggplant recipe is the sauce, since it is the deliverer of all the dominant flavours. Eggplants are subtle in terms of their own flavour; so garlic, ginger, thickly sweet, dark soy sauce, umami laden light soy and funky fish sauce (optional for vegetarians) come together to turn them into darkly bold morsels. In the absence fish sauce,add a little extra light soy to make up for the salt. And remember to taste and check the balance of sweet and salt. This deep brown sauce positively bursts with taste and that is why it must be syrupy in consistency to just coat the chunks of eggplant. A thin, runny sauce would literally run away rather than cling to the eggplant. Note that since the soaking water for the eggplant was only lightly salted,it is up to the sauce to make up for the lack of prior seasoning.
I must admit I was surprised how delicious this eggplant recipe turned out to be. Even my boys who normally turn their noses up at eggplant, were asking for a second helping. We ate it with plain steamed rice.You need nothing else. The eggplant and that gorgeous sauce are everything you could possibly want in your mouth. Sauce sticking to the back of the spoon had all of licking every last speck of it off before we finished. I can see this eggplant recipe doing many an encore in my kitchen.
Chinese Chilli Eggplant
- 500 g small eggplants quartered
- 3-4 large mildly hot red chilli peppers de-seeded and cut into thin strips
- 3 tsps cornflour
- 3 cloves of garlic finely minced
- 1- inch piece of ginger finely minced
- 3-4 bird’s eye chillies chopped
- ⅛ of 1 ghost pepper finely minced
- 2 + 1 tbsps of peanut oil
- 2 tbsps dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tbsp fish sauce optional
- Soak the eggplant wedges in a bowl of lightly salted water for 15-20 minutes making sure that they are submerged.
- After 20 minutes, drain the eggplants and dry on kitchen towels.
- Put the wedges in a bowl and sprinkle the cornflour over, mixing lightly with your hands to make sure that all the pieces are well coated.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of oil (at a time) in a non stick skillet on medium-high heat and fry the eggplants (in 2 batches) till they are well browned and cooked. Remove and set aside.
- Heat the remaining 1 tsp of oil in the same pan on low heat and fry the strips of red chilli pepper for a couple of minutes till slightly soft. Put in the minced garlic and ginger and fry for 20 seconds taking care not to burn them.
- Add the rest of the chopped chillies and fry quickly for a few seconds. Pour in the sauces and bring to a simmer.