Monday, November 26, 2012

Cold spicy & numbing eggplant

If ever there was a non-Muslim dish that reminded me of the Middle East, it would be Sichuan's way with cold eggplant. Just as with baba ghanoush and other Levantine appetizers, these silken strands of beige vegetable matter are garnished with lots of oil and spices and inspiration, turning them into aromatic pillows that seem to float above the plate.

Dishes like these are meant to be savored as a prelude to dinner, as a suggestion of the cook's prowess, and as a hint of many good things to come. Eggplant is not beloved by too many people, and that is all right with me, because that means that there are just that much more of those amethysts beauties left for me.


Rabidly aromatic sauce
But I admit it, I too didn't care too much for eggplant when I was a kid. We almost never ate it except at Italian restaurants, and even then it served mainly as a transportation system for heavy breading, sour red sauces, and heavy layers of cheese. I could never taste the moist wafers underneath that heavy assault, but then again, I couldn't taste the chicken or the veal that was fixed that way, either.

Then Julia Child and ratatouille entered my life, and eggplant became a thing of beauty. And years later I went to Taiwan and realized that even more wondrous things could be done with this strange vegetable.

My favorite, though, has always been this simple dish. Unlike baba ghanoush, though, the eggplants here don't swim in oil. The secret lies in steaming them first, shredding them by hand, and only then lavishing a generous amount of scented oils and vibrant flavors on top. Eggplant by its very nature is bland and reticent, so it acts as the perfect canvas, the ultimate foil for the most explosive combinations.



Cold spicy & numbing eggplant 
Liángbàn qiézĭ 涼拌茄子
Sichuan
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer 
Fry the crunchy bits first

2 pounds Chinese eggplant (see Tips)
2 tablespoons Chili Pepper Oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon hot bean sauce (la doubanjiang)
1 teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice or apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 green onion, trimmed

1. Use a vegetable peeler to remove the skins of the eggplants. Trim off the caps and any bruises. Cut the eggplants crosswise into approximately 4-inch lengths, and if the eggplants are more than an inch wide, cut these in half lengthwise. 

A welcome beginning to dinner
2. Place the peeled eggplants in a steamer and steam over high heat until very tender; if you insert a chopstick into the thickest part, it should offer no more resistance than pudding. Remove the eggplants from the steamer, drain off any water and juices in a colander, and let them cool off until they can be easily handled. Tear the eggplants into thin strips along their natural grain and place them in a medium work bowl.

3. Heat the chili oil in a wok over medium-high until it shimmers, and then add the garlic, ginger, and spicy bean sauce. Stir these aromatics around for about 10 seconds to release their fragrance, and then add the ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and sesame oil. Quickly cook these only to remove the rawness of the sauces and dissolve the sugar, taste and adjust seasoning, and them pour these over the shredded eggplant. Finely slice the green onion and add it to the eggplant. Toss well, chill, and serve.

Tips

Chinese eggplants are a medium purple color and are longer than other varieties – some reaching over a food long – while Japanese ones are smaller and darker purple; Japanese eggplants can be used interchangeably with the Chinese ones in almost any recipe. Western globe eggplants, though, usually have more water and seeds, and so might be a bit texturally different in the final dish.

Long Chinese eggplant
Peeling the eggplant is what gives this dish its remarkable silkiness.

This dish can be made a couple of days ahead of time, and the flavors only improve. If you do make this ahead of time, add the green onions just before serving so that they retain their color and texture. The ginger and garlic, though, will offer tiny bits of crunch no matter when they get tossed in, and these contrast wonderfully with the glossy eggplant.

Make this dish as chili-laden and numbing as you wish. As given here, the dish is comfortably spicy.

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