It’s one of those days: the newly-minted freelance writer has just a bare minimum of professional writing to do, the help has gone on her annual fortnight-long vacation out of town; it’s been raining buckets, and one is in a quandary as to what to cook for dinner tonight.
“I’m heading out to do a cake delivery,” I told my sister yesterday. “Might head to the supermarket to get some ingredients. Three-cups chicken okay with you?”
My sister considered this for a bit and said, “No, but could you try cooking stuffed eggplant instead?”
Stuffed eggplant in this case is not the fabled imam bayildi of Arabic cuisine or the melitzanes papoutsakia of Greek cuisine. No: it’s actually jiān niàng qiézi [煎釀茄子], a type of dimsum served at many restaurants specializing in Cantonese cuisine.
In this case, the slimmer purple Asian eggplants are cut into 1-1/2 inch chunks that are partly split through the middle and filled with a prawn forcemeat. The stuffed chunks are first fried, then steamed and served with a sauce compounded from garlic, sesame oil, and oyster sauce. In some recipes, the process is reversed: the stuffed eggplant is first steamed and then fried. However, the fry-then-steam process works for me, so I stuck to that.
Whichever method you choose, though, the end result is a rich-tasting dish that works better as a main course rather than a dimsum tidbit. Serve this with a large bowl of steaming hot rice to add scrumptious comfort to cold, stormy evenings.
The recipe I used was adapted from the one featured on The Woks of Life. But because several family members are allergic to crustaceans, mine features an all-pork filling and uses the more pungent black rather than white pepper; the filling also featured a tablespoon of rendered lard. Believe me when I say it adds the right amount of punch, loads of flavor, and a much-appreciated richness.
The authors of the original recipe say you can skip stuffing the eggplant all together and use veg stock to make this vegan-friendly. But, given my general aversion towards vegans, – who, I’m sorry to say, are the biggest hypocrites in both a political and a culinary sense – why mess with a good thing if you don’t have to? Oh, but feel free to replace the pork with minced white fish or ground chicken; I don’t recommend doing this with beef or lamb, though.
(Oh, and according to my sister, this dish tastes every bit as good cold and eaten for breakfast the day after.)
For the Stuffed Eggplant:
- 4 medium-sized Asian eggplants, trimmed and cut into 1-1/2 inch chunks
- 1/4 kilo ground pork
- 1 tablespoon rendered lard or bacon fat or vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 4 spring onions, finely chopped + additional 2 spring onions, also finely chopped
- generous dash of black pepper
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine or mirin
- Additional 2 tablespoons lard for frying
For the Sauce:
- 1 tablespoon lard
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
- 1/2 chicken or pork bouillon cube
- 1 cup water
- 1 clove garlic, finely minced
- ground black pepper to taste
Slit the eggplant chunks lengthwise through the middle, but do not cut all the way through. Just leave enough to form a hinge on one side. Set aside.
Combine all the remaining ingredients for the stuffing until a rough paste is formed. Stuff the prepared eggplant with about 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons of filling per piece. Chill for at least 10 minutes.
Heat the additional lard in a large frying pan over medium heat. Fry the chilled eggplant until browned on both sides; place the pieces in a heat-proof bowl that can fit comfortably in a steamer. Place three cups of water into the lower chamber of a steamer and bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat to a simmer and place the bowl of eggplant chunks in the upper chamber. Cover and steam for 10-15 minutes.
While the eggplant is cooking, make the sauce. In a pan over medium heat, saute the minced garlic in 1 tablespoon of lard and the sesame oil until fragrant. Add the bouillon cube, oyster sauce, and soy sauce. Cook until the cube has dissolved. Add the water, stir, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and add the cornstarch slurry; cook until slightly thickened.
Remove the cooked eggplant from the steamer and pour any juices in the bowl into the sauce; stir well. Put the eggplant in a serving dish, drizzle with the sauce; scatter over the remaining spring onions.