If you’ve ever ordered spicy eggplant in a Thai restaurant in Toronto, this is pretty much the dish you’re going to get. Fried wedges of Chinese eggplant nestled in a spicy sauce of garlic, Thai chilies, soy and onion and complimented by red pepper and fresh basil leaves.
The key to this recipe is speed. It’s a stir-fry, and it’s not going to be one of those weak Western-style stir-fries where you pile 2 pounds of vegetable chunks into a wok and simmer them in their own juice. No. We’re talking intense heat, and cooking times measured in seconds. The actual cooking time of this recipe, once the eggplant is fried, is under 4 minutes. Accordingly, all the preparations for the recipe need to be done before the heat is turned on. There will be absolutely no time in between steps to chop or measure ingredients. So we’re going to do all of that before we get stir-frying. Not to worry, though, because the rest is dead simple.
We also have two phases to deal with here: shallow-frying the eggplant, and making the sauce to go with it. Like most cooking, it’s all based on logic. Eggplant is a dense vegetable (actually it’s classified as a berry, but let’s go with “vegetable” for now) so it requires some pre-cooking, otherwise the short cooking time of this recipe would not result in thoroughly cooked eggplant. Trust me, you don’t want underdone eggplant in your stir-fry; Chinese eggplants can be rather bitter when uncooked (the large Italian ones even more so). Nasty. So, let’s get to work, shall we?
Directions (2 as main dish with rice, 4 as side dish):
- 1 cup oil for frying the eggplant
- 4 chinese eggplants cut into 8 wedges (cut eggplant into two half lengths and quarter them)
- 2 tbsp vegetable or peanut oil for stir-frying
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 2 red Thai chilies, finely sliced into rings, seeds washed out
- 2 shallots, rough chopped
- 1/4 red pepper cut thinly into strips
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 20 leaves of fresh basil (Thai basil if you can find it)
Serve with: steamed jasmine rice
What you will need: wok, tongs or slotted spoon, wooden spoon, knife and chopping board, measuring cups and spoons, colander or paper towel-lined plate for draining fried eggplants, bowls for organization
- Let’s talk prep first. The eggplants need to have the stem-ends cut off, then cut in half lengthwise, then each length quartered. This will give us 8 wedges (for each eggplant) about 3-3.5 inches long with a 90 degree edge. Put those aside in a large bowl. Next prepare each phase of the stir-frying. The phases will be chillies + garlic, onions + red pepper, eggplant, soy sauce + water + sugar, and finally basil. You’ll want to arrange these together in sequenced bowls near the stovetop (the sugar, soy sauce and water can be mixed directly into the measuring cup) Thorough prep makes successful stir-fry!
- Heat the 1 cup of oil in the wok over medium-high heat (about 6 on my dial) and get the quartered eggplant ready, and prepare the paper-towel-lined plate for draining the cooked eggplant.
- In batches (2 or 3) space the eggplant out in an even layer (no piling!) and fry the slices until the edges are nicely browned. This will take a minute or two but keep an eye on them – it could go faster. Turn the eggplants over and fry the other side. The finished product should be tender but still retain it’s shape. Use the tongs and gently push on the cut side of one piece. Is it a bit squishy but not mushy? Good, you did it right. Remove the cooked eggplant and place them on the paper towels to drain off the extra oil. Repeat the process with the next batch of eggplant until complete. There’s no need to rush this part, so don’t panic yet.
- Once the eggplant is done, clean out the wok. Discard the oil and give the wok a quick wipe with a paper towel. It doesn’t need to be completely oil-free – just get rid of the excess.
- Add the 2 tbsp of oil to the wok and heat over medium-high heat again (the wok might still be hot from the first stage, so you may be able to jump right into the next step rather quickly)
- Add the chopped garlic and chili peppers. Stir-fry these until the garlic is golden brown and fragrant. This will only take 10-30 seconds in a hot wok, so if the garlic starts frying very fast, move to the next step right away. Again, this is why we do all of the prep in advance.
- Add the bowl containing the onion and red pepper, and fry for about 10 seconds. This is just long enough to soften the onions and pepper somewhat without burning them (or the garlic already added to the wok)
- Add the fried eggplant and stir gently to mix the ingredients together. You don’t want to mash the eggplant around very much because it can get mushy quick once it’s cooked, and we want it to retain as much of it’s shape as possible.
- Immediately add the measuring cup full of water, soy sauce and sugar mixture. Gently mix this in as well and let it cook for about 1-2 minutes or until the liquid begins to bubble.
- Once the stir-fry is boiling, add the fresh basil leaves and take the wok off the heat. Turn the burner off. Stir in the fresh basil leaves and immediately transfer the eggplant to a serving dish. If you leave the eggplant in the hot wok, the eggplant could become overcooked and turn mushy.
- Garnish the dish with a few more large basil leaves and eat!
Simple. Like I said/wrote, most of the difficult work is simply in the organization. But logical preparations and advance planning makes the stir-fry process go very quickly and smoothly. Also, speaking of logic, the ingredients are added in specific orders as well, based on their natures. The oil first, then the chillies and garlic which will flavour the oil. Then you add the fresh onion and peppers and give them enough time to soak up the flavour as well while being softened in the heat (but the peppers won’t cook long enough to get mushy!). Then the cooked eggplant which needs less time than usual because it’s already been fried. Then you bathe the extire mixture with the seasoning liquids, salty and sweet. They boil and complete the cooking of the vegetables. And finally the fresh herbs, which you almost never add before the end of the cooking phase because they wilt very quickly and can lose flavour if overcooked. The order of cooking ingredients in a good recipe is designed to give each ingredient the best opportunity to provide flavour to the final dish. Something to keep in mind when experimenting.