Popular Post abcdefg Posted October 31, 2015 at 03:06 PM Popular Post Report Share Posted October 31, 2015 at 03:06 PM (Tip: Click on the photos and they will enlarge.) Fish-flavored eggplant is iconic here in China’s southwest, second only to a desk-top plaster bust of Chairman Mao. A store on the corner has an assortment of the latter, in various sizes and colors. You can even buy one that is unfinished, and paint it at home. Shopping for supper this morning at the wet market, I decided just for fun to tell most of the vendors I was planning to make yuxiang qiezi 鱼香茄子 at home this evening. It turned out to be a real conversation starter. The guy selling large scallions 大葱 told me his wife’s mother always put in a little bit of prickly ash, huajiao 花椒 because she was originally from Sichuan. “Good idea; I’ll try that too.” The lady selling fresh pork told me not to buy it too lean. “The fat adds flavor to a dish like yuxiang qiezi.” We settled on a piece of fresh pork that was about 30% fat and 70% lean. She washed it and ground it for me in her stainless steel machine. The woman at the stand which sold cucumbers 黄瓜 and eggplant (qieqi 茄子) recommended three long skinny ones instead of two larger stout ones. Her theory was that the skin adds a desirable slightly bitter note to the otherwise bland flavor of that vegetable. She told me when she makes yuxiang qiezi at home, she always puts in a tomato. Partly for color and partly for its acidic tang. “Thanks, I’ll try that tonight.” “Let me know how it comes out.” My nearest wet market is rich in local seasonings, ranging from the simple to the exotic. Lots of the items are pickled as well as being just plain hot. A quick walk through the aisles would provide an easy answer to the question of what kind of food is popular in these parts. One would have to conclude that Kunming likes highly seasoned food. Doesn’t necessarily have to be hot, but it needs to be bursting with flavor. Bland won’t cut it here in Yunnan like it might in coastal Guangdong. I explained my quest to one of the many vendors of sauces. She pointed me to a tub of her best dark spicy doubanjiang 辣豆瓣酱 and even offered me a taste with a disposable chopstick. She said it had more of a fermented flavor than the other two in her stock. Some of the peppers had been roasted before being ground and there was something special about the kinds of bean which were used. It is typically made with broad beans and soy beans, but this had dark beans as well. All in all, she thought it was “richer and more mellow,” thus better suited to yuxiang qiezi than the bright, fiery young pepper sauces in the adjacent containers. I bought 2 Yuan worth, about a third of a cup. If you are lucky and willing, that’s how it goes at the wet market. You not only buy your fresh produce and seasonings, but you get the benefit of friendly consultations along the way. Doubanjiang is a magic ingredient which has been called “the soul of Sichuan cuisine” by experts. But it is wildly popular in Yunnan and Guizhou as well. If you aren’t near a Chinese neighborhood wet market, you can buy it in jars at a grocery store 超市。 One last stop for some ginger and garlic. These are usually sold together by the same person. That guy has rough dirty nails, presumably from digging around in the earth, planting and harvesting his crops. The nail on his left pinkie finger must be almost an inch long, like a Qing Dynasty royal. It would be elegant if better maintained. He always scrunches up his nose and visibly flinches at my terrible accent. It’s a standing joke by now and we laugh together, since we both know his accent is worse than mine; he’s a dialect speaker 95% of the time. Told him I was making yuxiang qiezi and he dramatically rolled his eyes up in his head, as though invoking some culinary deity. I expected to hear an old countryside tale, but he just smiled and said, 好吃，好吃，好吃。 Got a ride home in one of the three-wheel gas-powered scooters that hangs around the gate, today’s answer to the rickshaw. 三轮摩托车。They are typically driven by retired guys with gray hair and raggedy caps. Today there was no problem, but last time my favorite driver refused to take me. Today he apologized and explained that it was because the cop at the main intersection had been on a rampage, handing out tickets to unlicensed vehicles like his. That particular cop is well known because he’s actually retired and works that corner free-lance on his own time to supplement his pension. He was once a minor hero and got injured in the line of duty, something to do with his left lower leg. He chains a collection basket to the nearest lamp pole and has a cardboard placard above it with highlights from his life story scribbled long-hand. He wears most of a uniform, albeit not freshly laundered, but always has one pants leg rolled up to the knee so passersby can see his scars. People put 5 Mao or 1 Yuan notes into his collection basket. I usually go with the 5 Mao option, and he usually salutes. Now he has stopped collecting fines and he’s Mister Goodcop again, helping old ladies cross the street and shepherding children. The week before this one, when my favorite driver had been afraid of the route, he referred me with a gesture to another guy across the alley. That bootleg driver had a similar three-wheel cart, but insisted on charging me an extra 5 Yuan because he could still venture where the others could not. I paid it because my arms were full of heavy produce, including a dozen fresh free-range eggs, and the sun was hot overhead. After we navigated the perilous “toll corner” without being accosted, he confided that the authorities usually gave him a pass because he was crippled. 我是残疾人，咯。He pointed with what seemed like pride to the aluminum crutches that assured him safe passage. We both smiled, with lots remaining unsaid. Now for the actual cooking. Why, you may wonder, does yuxiang qiezi 鱼香茄子 have such a misleading name since no fish are involved? How can fish-flavored eggplant make any sense? Well, it turns out that this method of seasoning originated in Sichuan when they cooked home-style fish. Using pickled chilies and fermented beans, plus ginger, garlic, and spring onions, together with a sweet and sour dimension, eventually came to mean something was "fish flavored." Yuxiang rousi 鱼香肉丝 is another such regional favorite, made with pork slivers instead of eggplant. Again, it contains no fish. Remember to put the rice on before doing anything else, at the start of your prep work. It's time for that now. I also pre-soak white rice for 15 minutes to make the grains softer. First order of business is to get the meat ready. By the way, it’s easy enough to make a meatless version by just leaving it out. Might add some green or yellow bell peppers in that case. Mix the ground pork with some corn starch or equivalent, usually called xiaofen 小粉 or dianfen 淀粉, and a little Shaoxing cooking wine 绍兴酒。The starch powder pictured here is made from cassava. Since ground meat doesn’t require much in the way of tenderizing, you only need a teaspoon or so of the xiaofen and a tablespoon or so of the wine. Stir it all together so it can marinate. Should not be soupy wet or it won’t fry well. Looks like this after mixing. Now prepare the aromatics. In this case that means mincing a couple large cloves of garlic and a thumb of ginger. Peeling the ginger can be a chore, and I use the sharp edge of a spoon to make it go faster. Hold the ginger in one hand, and pull the spoon towards yourself with the other. Scrape the peel away instead of trying to cut it away. (Couldn't illustrate it properly since that would require three hands.) You notice the whole prickly ash in the spoon just above, next to the ginger and garlic. It is huajiao 花椒。This is a quintessential Sichuan spice that makes the tongue a little bit numb; imparts a distinctive “mouth feel” 口感。Even though it is sometimes referred to as Sichuan peppercorn, it actually is a member of the citrus family; a seed, complete with its husk; not a pepper at all. Here’s a closer look. It is used in Sichuan cooking for its crunch as well as for its flavor. If you find it too crunchy, however, you can crush it in a small bowl with the back of a spoon. I use between a teaspoon and a tablespoon of it, depending on who is coming to dinner. Next, clean the spring onions 大葱。 Let me show you an easy way to do that. They always come with some soil on the root ends. Don’t try to wash them, because that makes a big mess. Instead, just peel down the outer layers and snap off the tip. I do it over the sink. Slice the white part into segments 3 or 4 cm long, and cut these again once or twice lengthwise. I use one spring onion per eggplant; less if they are real big. Make a sauce of two tablespoons each of light soy sauce, aged vinegar, and Shaoxing wine. Plus one teaspoon of sesame seed oil. I prefer the dark kind because it has more sesame flavor. Add a teaspoon of sugar and half teaspoon of MSG if you use it. Omit adding extra salt, since several other ingredients are salty, especially the doubanjiang. This sauce you have just made is sometimes referred to as “fish flavor sauce.” Wash and rough chop one tomato. If you cut it too small it will just “disappear” during the cooking. You want it to add highlights of color. Your rice will now be about ready so it’s time to finish the prep work and move to the stove. You have saved the eggplant until last. Slice off the husk at the stem end, but don’t waste much flesh. 不要浪费。 Today I cut the eggplant on a rotating bias since each one was small. Sometimes I cut it into sticks or slices. Sometimes I leave it whole, scored with deep cross-hatched serrations. . If you cut up the eggplant immediately before cooking, it won’t have time to turn brown. But if, for whatever reason, it will need to stand longer, immerse the cut sections in cold salted water. Weigh them down with something and squeeze out the water before using. Now pre-cook the ground meat and scoop it out of the wok or skillet. No seasoning needed and it doesn't need to brown; just needs to lose its pink color. Reserve it off to one side in a bowl. (The Chinese term for "reserve" in this context is 备用。) Add a little more oil and put in the garlic, ginger, and huajiao. Sauté them in oil over medium heat until they begin to release their aroma, but don’t let them cook long enough to get brown. Add the duobanjiang 豆瓣酱 and stir it around. Unlike the ginger and garlic, it doesn’t really need to cook; the goal is just to make a rich, flavor-infused oil. I use a scant tablespoon for each eggplant. Add the eggplant and mix it well with the oil, using a ladle 勺子 or a spatula 锅铲 to gently press down as you stir. Add the tomatoes and then return the pre-cooked meat to the wok. The meat has been resting in a bowl so most of the fat has collected in the bottom. Leave that part behind by spooning the meat out of the bowl instead of just pouring the whole thing. Add the “fish flavor” sauce from its bowl and stir well. It is quickly absorbed. Now in go the spring onions. They are always last. Stir for a minute or so and serve. Steamed rice on the side. You now have a pretty good one-dish meal; an easy bachelor supper, or a decent dinner for two with the addition of a soup and a salad. If you order yuxiang qiezi in a restaurant, it will often come out swimming in oil. Some of the most famous traditional recipes even call for deep-frying the eggplant. Doing it at home means you can make it a bit healthier, but it will never qualify as “lean cuisine.” I sometimes make it by steaming the eggplant a few minutes before a very light frying; toss everything in the wok mainly to blend flavors. If you can talk yuxiang qiezi with Chinese people that you meet, perhaps while sharing a compartment on the slow train from Lijiang to Guiyang, they will know you are not just another lazy tourist in search of the nearest McDonald’s. Even if you never make it at home, simply asking “Where can you find decent yuxiang qiezi around here?” goes a long way in starting a casual connection and passing the time. You will instantly be promoted half a notch in their minds, since they will realize you have some respect for Chinese food culture and at least a little knowledge of how important things like that are. Yuxiang qiezi can serve as a cultural bridge and as they unwrap their bundle of train-travel goodies, I guarantee you will be offered an orange or two. 19 Quote Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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