When I was growing up, we enjoyed regular meals out as a wider family, with my grandma, aunt, uncle, and three cousins who lived upstairs from us. The meals were always at the latest Cantonese restaurant somewhere in the Richmond District of San Francisco that my grandma deemed “the best” at the time for Cantonese Chinese food. When I started getting into my tweens and teen years, my aunt always insisted that “the kids” have a voice when ordering. And because I loved eggplant, I would request it as soon as I was asked. So my aunt always made sure that there was some tofu dish and some eggplant dish at the table especially for me.
The thing I found funny, though, was my aunt used to say that I always wanted to eat “healthy foods.” Little did any of us know back then that the Chinese preparation for eggplant was really anything but healthy: to get that silky smooth, buttery, luscious texture in each bite of eggplant, the eggplant actually needs to be deep fried. After deep frying, it’s then lightly stir fried in a sauce that is known as “yu xiang” or “fish fragrant,” with a chili bean paste that is characteristic of Sichuanese cooking. Even the Cantonese restaurants do it this way, just with perhaps a different version of chili bean paste. Then, it’s served, glistening, silky, smooth, and with the eggplant skin nice, bright, and purple.
Both my mom and aunt tried replicating this at home by simply sauteing the eggplant. It never worked: the eggplant texture was always squishy instead of silky smooth; the eggplant skin would turn from bright purple to this sad, miserable brown color. When I moved out and started cooking on my own, I tried doing things like steaming (tasty, but again, not the same. Plus, in a stir-fry it would totally fall apart into mush) or roasting/broiling (good, but again, wouldn’t stay in tact). But finally, I decided after my corn and coconut fritters worked with some shallow frying that it was finally time to shallow fry eggplant. I wasn’t doing it totally traditionally: I wasn’t deep frying the eggplant. I was soaking the pieces in a salt water mixture to a) remove any bitterness and b) prevent the eggplant from soaking up too much oil, which I didn’t want. I shallow fried the eggplant in my Instant Pot for 4 minutes per batch, drained on a towel, and lightly stir fried. And I was totally floored… if I can even say that about something I cooked myself: it really tasted and looked restaurant quality. The eggplant pieces remained in tact and the skins were bright purple and glistening. Each bite was addictive, super luscious in the mouth. And the sauce was perfect — not too spicy but very savory. Kaia enjoyed the sauce, too, but kept smushing the eggplant itself in her hands…
For health reasons, I probably won’t be making yu xiang qiezi that often at home. I also don’t love shallow frying because even if it’s not deep frying, it’s still way more oil than I am used to cooking with. But I had a deep satisfaction in knowing I faced my fear with frying eggplant and can easily replicate this when I’d like in the future… pretty much anytime. It really was delicious and made me feel proud.