After a month and a half of being in California, I’m starting to really miss Chinese food. On the Central Coast, it’s hard to find good Chinese restaurants. Of course, there’s the local Panda Express, and other such establishments. But they don’t particularly appeal to us. The other day we actually had a coupon for free food at Panda Express. We pulled into the parking lot – I mean, it’s FREE FOOD, people! Old college habits die hard. But when we peered into the eerie heat-lamp-lit interior, we just shuddered and decided to cook dinner instead.
There are a few Chinese restaurants around, but we haven’t gotten around to visiting them yet. So maybe I shouldn’t pass judgement so quickly.
I finally got a chance to stock up on Asian sauces, spices and other condiments when we drove down to Orange County last weekend, and I brought a good couple of heavy bags back up here with me. Then, all I needed to do was to find the raw materials (aka Asian vegetables) to cook me up a feast. Of course, it’s not the easiest to find Asian vegetables around here. The local supermarkets don’t stock baby bok choy or bamboo shoots, or even very good tofu (the best tofu is fresh, something not very appealing to our food industrial complex). But on Wednesday I went to the farmer’s market, and tadaa! I found an Asian vegetable stand!
It was kind of refreshing to be in contact with Asians again, to be completely honest. Of course, they were speaking Vietnamese (I think?), not Chinese, but there was a definite sense of déjà vu as I grabbed a couple of Japanese eggplants and handed them, smiling, to the middle-aged Asian man who bagged them and gave me change. I mean, haven’t I done that countless times before, only when I’m in China, the middle-aged man only speaks Chinese, and the vegetables cost a fraction of the price? In any event, I was quite satisfied to find a supply of Asian vegetables, including some I haven’t used before, such as mizuna, Japanese mustard greens.
One thing I really love about Chinese food is mixing together all the different sauces. I feel like I’m in some crazy science lab, and the goal is to find the right combination of sauces to produce the best flavor. Even though some Chinese recipes give specific measurements for how much of each sauce to use, there is such a great difference between different brands and kinds of sauces that you really have to do much of it by taste. Soy sauces, for example, vary so much in saltiness and flavor, as do fish sauces. Different kinds of vinegar vary in acidity, and I’m not about to go buying a new bottle of vinegar every time a recipe recommends a specific brand (in Chinese vinegars alone, I have three or four bottles already, let alone my balsamic, wine and cider vinegars)! So, I experiment, and taste, and sometimes it works well, and sometimes it doesn’t work out as well as it might. But hey, that’s cooking right? It’s an imprecise science (unlike baking).
This is one of my favorite Chinese dishes – Eggplant in Chili-Garlic Sauce. I’ve always had difficulty with my eggplants becoming either falling-apart tender, or not quite tender enough. I just want them to be tender but to keep their shape, darn it! The trick is to fry them at high heat, until they sear nicely on the outside, making a sort of crust, which keeps the tender insides together. In a traditional upside-down-dome-shaped wok, you can easily almost deep-fry the eggplants in a few tablespoons of oil at the bottom of the wok. But I, alas, have an electric range, and my wok is flat-bottomed. So I just pan-fry them in a bit of oil. Thank you to Appetite For China, whose recipe helped me get it right!
Eggplant in Chili-Garlic Sauce
Slightly adapted from Appetite For China
Be careful not to add any moisture to the eggplant while frying, as it will make the eggplants fall apart.
2 tbsp chili bean sauce
1 1/2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp black Chinese vinegar
1/2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp rice wine or sake
¼ cup chicken stock
a good grinding of fresh black pepper
2 Japanese eggplants, sliced into thick strips
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp ginger, minced
½ tsp cornstarch dissolved in 2 tbsp water
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
sliced spring onions and cilantro leaves
1. Mix together all the ingredients for the sauce and make sure it’s ready to be dumped in.
2. Heat the vegetable and sesame oils together in a wok over medium-high heat. When oil is shimmering, add the slices of eggplant. Using tongs, turn them as they fry to ensure each side is well browned and inside is tender.
3. When surface of eggplants are browned (almost caramelized), add the garlic and ginger and toss until fragrant. Add the sauce, and reduce heat to medium-low. Allow to simmer and boil down until eggplant has absorbed some of the sauce and sauce is somewhat thickened, just a minute or two. If sauce needs more thickening, add the cornstarch-water slurry, and stir briefly until thick and shiny.
4. Arrange eggplant strips on a plate, and pour remaining sauce over top. Garnish with spring onions and cilantro, and serve along with steamed jasmine rice.