This dish, almost more than any other, expresses for me the gorgeous layering of flavours that is the signature of Sichuanese cookery. Pickled chillies, either on their own or with fermented broad beans in the famous Sichuan chilli bean sauce, give the dish its warmth and lustre; garlic, ginger and spring onions add a luxurious kick of flavour and a hint of sweet and sour serves to harmonise all the other tastes. The same sauce, minus the aubergines, can be poured over steamed or deep-fried seafood or chicken; while a similar combination of flavourings can be used to cook slivered pork, or as a dressing for cold, cooked peas or broad beans. They call this complex flavour “fish-fragrant” because it draws on the seasonings used in Sichuanese fish cookery, so it is supposed to recall to those who eat it the taste of fish.
If you prefer not to deep-fry, just salt the aubergines, brush them with oil and shallow-fry them or roast them in the oven, then make a fish-fragrant sauce and pour it over them in a serving dish. The aubergines won’t absorb the flavours of the sauce quite as well this way, but they’ll still be delicious. (If you roast or shallow-fry them, then cook them in the sauce as in the classic recipe, they’ll disintegrate, which is why it’s better to pour the sauce over.)
Leftovers, if you have any, taste wonderful either hot or cold. Some cooks add minced pork to the dish for extra savouriness but, when it’s so delicious as it is, why bother? For me, the beauty of this dish lies in the way it transforms such a humble vegetable into something extraordinary.
If you don’t have potato starch, use cornstarch instead, or no starch at all: it’ll still taste delicious. A light balsamic vinegar is a good substitute for the Chinese vinegar.
Serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as part of a Chinese meal
cooking oil for deep-frying (400ml will do if you are using a round-bottomed wok)
Sichuanese chilli bean paste 1½ tbsp, or Sichuan pickled chilli paste, or a mixture of the two
ginger 1 tbsp, finely chopped
garlic 1 tbsp, finely chopped
caster sugar 2 tsp
potato flour ¾ tsp, mixed with 1 tbsp cold water
Chinkiang vinegar 2 tsp
spring onion greens 4 tbsp, finely sliced
Cut the aubergines lengthways into 3 thick slices, then cut these into evenly sized batons. Sprinkle them with salt, mix well and leave in a colander for at least 30 minutes to drain.
In a wok, heat the oil for deep-frying to 180C. Add the aubergines in batches and deep-fry for 3-4 minutes until slightly golden on the outside and soft and buttery within. Remove and drain on kitchen paper.
Drain off the deep-frying oil, rinse the wok if necessary, then return it to a medium flame. When the wok is hot again, add 3 tablespoons of oil. Add the chilli bean paste and stir fry until the oil is red and fragrant, then add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir fry until you can smell their aromas. Take care not to burn these seasonings; remove the wok from the heat for a few seconds if necessary to control the temperature (you want a gentle, coaxing sizzle, not a scorching heat).
Add the stock and sugar and mix well. Season with salt to taste if necessary. Add the fried aubergines to the sauce and let them simmer gently for a minute or so to absorb some of the flavours. Then stir the potato flour mixture, pour it over the aubergines and stir in gently to thicken the sauce. Add the vinegar and spring onions and stir a few times, then serve.