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Eggplant in Chili-Garlic Sauce

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).

chili garlic eggplant

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

Garnish (optional)
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.

12 comments to Eggplant in Chili-Garlic Sauce

  • Chris

    Wow, the pictures look great! I guess you don’t need me anymore, except to eat the left-overs!

  • It’s so hard to find good Asian veggies in NYC as well, unless you go to Chinatown. I need to inform some of our farmer’s markets that I want an Asian veggie stand. Stat.

    This is one of my favorite Chinese dishes as well. I’m so glad you posted this so now I can enjoy it at home!

  • Camilla

    Chris honey, I think I need you for more than that =).

    Joanne – really? I’m surprised that a place as cosmopolitan as NYC wouldn’t stock good Asian veggies.

  • Rachel

    Hi, I came across your website via foodgawker, and it was interesting to see that you recently moved to California’s Central Coast. I just moved from San Luis Obispo to Oregon last month.

    Have you discovered the Asian market on Monterey Street in SLO yet? I don’t think they carry fresh vegetables, but you might find some other ingredients that are hard to come by in regular grocery stores. It’s a couple blocks north of the Shell station that’s at the Monterey/Santa Rosa intersection. I’m pretty sure it’s just called Oriental Market.

    As for Chinese restaurants, I haven’t actually tried very many in the area, but I do know that the Golden China in Morro Bay is far superior to the Golden China in downtown San Luis Obispo. But even so, it might not be considered very good to someone that really knows good Chinese food. There is a really good Thai place in downtown San Luis called Thai Classic, and it has the best potstickers I’ve ever eaten.

    Anyway, I hope you enjoy living on the Central Coast! If there’s anything else you’d like to know about the area, let me know. :)

  • Camilla

    Hi Rachel, thanks so much for the tip! No, I haven’t visited that market yet, but I”ll be sure to check it out next time we go to SLO. As for the Chinese restaurants, we’re trying to try them out one by one, so thanks for the recommendations =).

  • Tina

    I completely agree with you being in CA, I have not found any good Chinese places either. The best Chinese food i have had was in China town in Chicago (Congee) and in England (steamed pot stickers etc). I miss it a lot!! If you do find some good places please post them. Thank you for the yummy eggplant recipe =D

  • Camilla

    Tina – Will do =).

  • thanks so much for the easy, great tasting, healthy recipe. my husband lives in hangzhou part time, my son in beijing full time. they are always wishing i could make authentic dishes. i have been to china several times, and the food is cheap, quick, fresh and wonderful, eggplant in a light sauce is my favorite, but spicy works as well…

  • Beth

    I just discovered this site today… yum! This recipe sounds great, but I have a very sensitive stomach and can’t tolerate spicy… is this sauce really spicy, and if so, any thoughts on how to tone it down? Thank you!! (I made the apple galette for tonight – DH will be surprised for sure!)

  • Paisley

    Just found your recipe via Google and made it for dinner tonight. So easy and delicious! Thanks for sharing.

  • Camilla

    Hmm, it’s not super spicy for me, but if you have a sensitive stomach, I probably wouldn’t try it. You could try omitting the chili bean sauce?

  • Irina

    I just found your blog and I love it!
    Eggplant is one of my favorite foods, and this looks amazing.
    I am not an expert on finding Chinese vegetables in NYC, but I would think Chinatown IS where you’d find them. It’s a short train ride away from the Union Square Farmer’s Market.
    I love the big Chinese supermarket near my bf’s in Brooklyn. I cannot wait for the pomellos to come back in season, they are always the cheapest there. Because they only stock Japanese eggplant there, I have been using it to make eggplant parm for my bf, and I kind of prefer it that way now.