Monday, April 29, 2013

Chinese ratatouille without the mouse

You know you have a great culinary idea when it pops up all on its own on both sides of the world. Such is the case with this dish, which of course is not called ratatouille in Chinese, but rather “braised eggplant.” That is one very prosaic name for one very delicious way with heat-loving vegetables.

This dish features the produce that is beloved throughout China's northwest region: eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. And, like ratatouille, this has garlic to brighten the flavors. But, instead of olive oil and marjoram, the Shanxi version features sesame oil and Sichuan peppercorns.

Also unlike the French take on this dish, the eggplants are deep fried to caramelize them and give them a rich flavor. This may appear to be not only too much of an effort, but also a huge waste of oil. 

Eggplants, peppers & tomatoes
But the eggplants when prepared this way turn creamy inside as the hot fat sears the cut edges, and they won’t mush up as the ratatouille cooks, either. 

Instead, because the final dish is cooked so quickly once the eggplant is fried to a deep brown, each vegetable retains its individuality. Although eggplant soaks up oil when given the slightest chance, it will pool into the edges of the dish once it is completed, so you can pour it off, if you like.

I have always loved ratatouille and even lived off of it for months when I lived by myself in Taipei; it was sort of a comforting taste of the West after a stressful day of working and studying. I would use leftovers in omelets, in sandwiches, in salads… I never seemed to tire of it. And now with this Shanxi version, I have fallen in love all over again.

Chinese ratatouille 
Huìshāo qiézi 燴燒茄子
Serves 4 to 6

2 pounds Chinese or Japanese eggplant
Oil for frying
8 ounces sweet or mild peppers (see Tips)
5 to 6 ounces ripe tomatoes (see Tips)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
½ teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
½ cup chopped cilantro

Roll-cut eggplant
1. Rinse the eggplant and pat very dry (see Tips). If the eggplants are more than an inch thick, cut off the caps and slice the eggplant down the middle before cutting them into fat triangles about an inch wide. Heat at least 4 inches of oil in a wok over high, and when a chopstick inserted into the oil is immediately covered with bubbles, carefully slide about a quarter of the eggplant into the hot oil (see Tips). Stir the eggplant occasionally, and when it is a dark brown all over, use a Chinese spider or slotted spoon to remove it to a medium work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the eggplant until all of it has been fried.

2. While the eggplant is frying, prep the rest of the ingredients: Rinse the peppers, pat them dry, remove the caps, and shake out all of the seeds. Cut the peppers into pieces about the same size as the eggplant. Cut the tomatoes into the same size, too.

3. When all of the eggplant has been fried, pour the oil out of the wok into a heatproof container. Add the sesame oil to the wok and sprinkle on the ground Sichuan peppercorns and garlic. Stir-fry these on high for a few seconds to release their fragrance, and then add all of the eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. Stir-fry these quickly until the tomatoes and peppers start to wild, and then add the soy sauce. Toss these together, and then taste and adjust the seasoning. Toss in the cilantro and serve.
Shanxi ratatouille

Use whatever kind of mild peppers you like and which are looking good. Anaheims are great here, as are sweet banana peppers.

Try to use the ripest, tastiest tomatoes in the market. If it is winter or spring, cherry tomatoes will be a good bet, and if even those look and taste iffy, spring for a can of whole tomatoes; San Marzano canned tomatoes are very good.

Make sure that your eggplants are wiped very dry, as even a drop of water will explode in the hot oil.

Use more garlic and ground Sichuan peppercorn if you want to emphasize these flavors.

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