Oh wow, this is how eggplant should be prepared. The two big things I learned this time making braised eggplant were: (1) brining your eggplant makes it cook faster, sear and develop richer flavor more quickly, and absorb less oil, and (2) actually don't stir-fry, but rather keep the skin side away from the wok surface as you sear the eggplant if you want it to stay purple.*
[*Update: hmm, this isn't the whole story--there's something more going on, since when I tried it again, I didn't get quite as good of results. I'll need to try and figure out what's going on.
Also, I tried the microwave technique Kenji mentioned in his piece linked below. Don't do it. The eggplant collapses and dries out too much, turning a little tough and chewy. Stick with the brining.]
[**Update 2: check out my my later post with what I found through further experimentation. If you don't want to deep-fry, shallow-frying's the way to go. I've updated my recipe below.]
Kenji Lopez-Alt over at Serious Eats has the details on brining your eggplant to extract excess fluid versus other methods (salting, steaming, microwaving, and nothing). Drawing out the extra moisture collapses eggplant's spongy structure, making it so that you don't need so much oil to cook it, and the eggplant also soaks up less oil while cooking.
Where my approach diverged from Kenji's (seems easier than typing/saying Lopez-Alt whenever you want to refer to him) was that he seared his eggplant without regard to the skin, which makes it turn brown as it cooks--which, let me be clear, is totally fine and doesn't affect the flavor at all. But how to keep eggplant purple has been a backburner question of mine for a while now.
The common suggestion is that you have to deep fry eggplant to keep it from turning brown, but it's just not worth it to me to use all that extra oil. I've also read talk of how you have to painstakingly keep the skin from coming into contact with air as it cooks (skin side down in water, weighted with a plate?), but that's probably even more of a pain. I haven't bothered trying it, but it sounds fishy to me, since with deep frying eggplant it's still exposed to air...though I haven't tried the deep fry method either.
But look at this beautiful purple hue! And I didn't deep fry at all!
Anyway, for flavor, the important thing is brining or otherwise drawing out the moisture from your eggplant first before you get to frying and braising. My recipe below, adapted from Kenji's, seems like it's not that different from my previous one, adapted from Grace Yang's, but the brining step actually makes a big difference. Besides what I've discussed above, the shorter searing and cooking time means that it doesn't need to braise for very long either, which means you don't need to add the extra water in my previous recipe for the braising to soften the eggplant. The sauce gets thick quick, and the flavors are just stronger and clearer. This is how I'm making Sichuanese eggplant moving forward.
“Fish Fragrant” Eggplant Yu Xiang Qie Zi
1 lb. Chinese or Japanese eggplants (about 2 large Chinese ones--Japanese eggplants are smaller), trimmed, split into quarters lengthwise and cut into 3- to 4-inch lengths
Peanut or vegetable oil for shallow frying
3 dried red Chinese chilies, sliced, seeds discarded (or Thai bird chilies, any small hot red chili)
~1-inch knob ginger, minced (about 1 TBS)
3 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 1 TBS)
3 scallions, whites thinly sliced, greens cut into 1/3-inch segments (keep scallion whites and greens separated)
1½ TBS Sichuanese chili broad bean paste (doubanjiang)
1 TBS rice wine for cooking
1 tsp sugar
1 scant TBS soy sauce
1 TBS black or chinkiang vinegar (use a not-too-fancy balsamic vinegar in its place if unavailable)
1 tsp tapioca starch (or corn starch)
Roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish
- Combine 6 TBS salt with 6 cups water in a very large mixing bowl (1 TBS salt per cup of water), stirring to dissolve the salt. Add eggplant pieces, skin-side up, and set aside to soak for about 15 minutes. If that’s not enough salt water, add more in the same ratio until all your eggplant has exposure to the brine.
- In a small bowl, combine rice wine, sugar, soy sauce, and black vinegar. Add corn starch and stir until dissolved. Set sauce aside. Drain eggplant and spin dry in a salad spinner or pat dry with paper towels.
- Heat ¼-inch of oil in a wok over medium heat until inserting chopsticks into the oil produces small bubbles energetically. Add eggplant in a single layer, skin side down. Cook for about 2 minutes. Remove eggplant from wok and set aside in a bowl while you cook the next batch of eggplant.
- Pour out excess oil (leaving about couple TBS worth in the wok) into a heat-proof container to discard. Add ginger, garlic, scallions, and chilies to the wok. Cook, stirring constantly until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add broad bean paste and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add eggplant back into the wok along with scallion greens and turn the heat down to its lowest setting. Give the sauce mixture a stir to mix up the starch that’s settled at the bottom, and pour over the eggplant in the wok.
- Cook, tossing constantly, until sauce is thickened, glossy, and coats eggplant, about a minute (if the sauce over-thickens, thin with a few tablespoons of water). Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with chopped cilantro leaves, and serve immediately.