Spicy Sichuan “Fish-Fragrant” Eggplant

Cooking in the Time of Corona Virus

The world is in a very uncertain place right now. Here in New York, schools and non-essential businesses like bars and restaurants have been ordered to shut down, to stem the spread of Coronavirus. I’m also in a weird place- having given the standard two weeks notice at my job as a pasta maker, my last day happened to coincide with the day the restaurant closed for the foreseeable future. No one can predict how long this will last or the extent of the damage it will do to the economy. So for now I’m doing my best to stay calm, applying for jobs, planning some cooking projects, tackling random tasks around the house, (like archiving recipes from my stack of food magazines) working out in the park to avoid pissing off my neighbors, and finally starting to write this blog.

My grocery shopping tends to take me all over the city. I buy all my nuts, chocolate, oils, and certain other staples at Trader Joes. I go to Hong Kong Supermarket for all of my Asian condiments, and to stock up on fresh vegetables like yu choi and lotus roots. I love picking up seasonal produce at the Union Square Greenmarket, and in the winter I have a spot in Williamsburg for cheap berries, and another one for bunches of organic greens. In Bed Stuy, where I live, I can always find tomatillos and poblanos, and I like to buy heavier items like watermelons, cabbages, and canned tomatoes closer to home, to cut down on schlepping. I tend to grocery shop often, at least three times per week, doing one major trip and then stopping on my way home to pick up a few things. I started stocking up a few weeks ago, figuring it couldn’t hurt to have a few extra bags of dried beans and pasta on hand. I’ve seen the pictures of grocery stores with empty shelves, people panicking and hoarding toilet paper and Tylenol, but in my neighborhood, as of yesterday, the grocery store felt pretty normal.

On Friday, when things felt dire and surreal, I walked across the bridge to Chinatown (I’ve been reading Fuschia Dunlop’s Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet and Sour Memoir of Eating in China, and was craving Sichuan food). Passing the Trader Joe’s on Clinton Street, I witnessed a line snaking around the block, just to get into the store. On Hester Street, however, it was business as usual. Sure, there were a few people wearing masks, and a new display of Clorox wipes by the registers, but the shelves were full and the aisles didn’t seem significantly more crowded than usual. (This seems like as good a place as any for a non sequitur: the week before last, in Hong Kong grocery, I was gazing quizzically at the wall of “laver” seaweed packages, trying to decide if they were related to the varieties I was looking for, wakame and arame. A woman in her sixties saw me looking, and launched into a lavish tale about how she cooked this seaweed to cure internal bleeding in her husband, which had caused the whites of his eyes to turn red, supposedly due to his penchant for eating fried and sugary foods. I’m paraphrasing. She then segued into a story about a time when she ate black sesame to staunch a flood of blood from… let’s just say I learned a lot about her digestive system. This included a dramatic line about lying on the table in her living room, looking at the clock, and saying to herself, “now I will live, or I will die.”) This time, I didn’t meet anyone interesting. I picked up long purple eggplants, a few bunches of greens, and fresh wide rice noodles.

All week I’ve been craving “comfort foods” more than usual. Yesterday I had to fight the urge to buy Dove ice cream bars. This instinct to eat fatty and starchy foods in times of stress is totally natural, but I’ve been trying to channel it into dishes that are genuinely nourishing, psychologically and physically. It’s more important than ever now to stay healthy.

Recipe

Fish Fragrant Eggplant, adapted slightly from Fuschia Dunlop’s The Food of Sichuan

As Dunlop explains in her book, “fish fragrant” refers to a classic flavor combination that compliments fish, but there is no fish in the recipe. This sauce is spicy, sweet, sour, and funky, and I love the way it plays of the rich, silky eggplant. The original recipe calls for deep-frying the eggplant, but I roasted it instead, to cut down on oil and because I only have so much space on the stovetop. I also roasted cauliflower, because my partner isn’t a huge fan of eggplant. I subbed in brown rice flour for cornstarch and honey for the sugar, but otherwise it’s largely intact. I served this with brown rice, steamed edamame, and stir-fried lotus root.

Ingredients

3 or 4 Japanese Eggplants (or you could substitute 2 medium globe eggplants. Or another vegetable if you don’t like eggplant.)

1 tbsp neutral oil

2 tbsp Sichuan chili bean paste

1 ½ tbsp minced garlic

1 tbsp minced ginger

1 tsp soy sauce

1 tsp honey or maple syrup

2/3 cup stock or water

1 tsp brown rice flour

1 tbsp Chianking vinegar

1 bunch of scallions, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 425°F

Slice the eggplants in quarters lengthwise, then crosswise. You want slices that are roughly 3 inches long and 1 inch thick. Place eggplant slices in a colander, toss with salt, and set aside to drain for at least 10 minutes.

Pat the eggplants dry with a paper towel, then place on a baking sheet and toss with oil. Roast for roughly 25 minutes, tossing halfway through. The eggplant should be slightly browned, and still hold its shape.

Heat a wok or a Dutch oven over a medium-high flame. Add chili bean paste and stir fry for 1 minute. Add garlic and ginger, stir fry for 2 minutes. Add water or stock, soy sauce, and honey, and bring to a boil. Turn heat to medium-low and add brown rice flour. Stir vigorously and allow to thicken- you want it to be the texture of heavy cream. Stir in scallions and vinegar, then turn off heat. Stir in eggplant, and serve.

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