Yu Xiang (Fish-fragrant) Eggplant and Zucchini

Last year, I posted a dish I called Fish-fragrant Pork Belly with Pineapple, and I briefly mentioned the origin of the name. There is a group of dishes in Chinese cuisine (chiefly that of Sichuan and, to a lesser extent, Hunan), which are referred to using the Chinese characters ‘魚香’ (pronounced ‘yu xiang’). The first means ‘fish’ while the second can be translated as ‘fragrance’ or ‘aroma’. A ‘fish fragrant’ dish is characterized by a technique wherein garlic, ginger and scallion are first sautéed in oil and then the main ingredients are added along with a sauce composed of Chili-bean paste enlivened with sugar and vinegar.

The name, as we shall see below, actually has little to do with fish. Occasionally, once comes across a very unfortunate Chinese to English translation in which the characters are rendered as ‘fish-odor’ or ‘fish-smelling’ but very often, in the west, a dish will be described as being served in ‘garlic sauce’ or ‘spicy garlic sauce’. If you see these on a menu, look for the ‘Yu Xiang’ characters and you will know that you are dealing with a ‘fish fragrant’ dish. Two of the most common main ingredients are shredded pork and eggplant but it is also possible to come across a fish-fragrant fish dish as well. For today, I am doing an eggplant version but, since I only had a very small eggplant to work with, I am supplementing it with zucchini, which should do very nicely too… 

Many sources are quick to note that ‘fish-fragrant’ dishes to not contain (or smell like) fish, but they then go on to assert confidently (and, in my opinion) incorrectly that the name arises because the cookery technique was originally used for fish dishes. One writer has proposed that the characters in the Chinese name are actually a corruption of an earlier name with a similar pronunciation in which the ‘Yu’ refers to a river in Sichuan, and the ‘Xiang’ to a river in Human, thus memorializing the origin of the dish. It is a clever suggestion but not one that I believe.

Fuchsia Dunlop, author of the excellent ‘Land of Plenty’, says that, at one time, the dish was spiced up with pickled chilies, in which a carp was added for additional flavor ( hence ‘fish-fragrance’), and this seems the most likely origin of the name  to me. Nowadays, the fermented chili is replaced with the spicy bean paste known as ‘Dou Ban Jiang’ (seen pictured above). This has the heat of chili, while the fermented bean paste adds the same umami depth as would have been by the fermented carp.

The Ingredients

  • 1 small Eggplant;
  • 1 Zucchini;
  • 2 – 3 Garlic cloves, finely  chopped;
  • 3 slices fresh Ginger, minced;
  • 1 Scallion, thinly sliced;
  • 1 tbsp. Sugar;
  • 1 tbsp. Vinegar;
  • 1 tbsp. Sichuan Chili Bean Paste (or more to taste);
  • ¼ cup water.

The Method

First, slice the eggplant and zucchini into fairly thick batons and the mix the sugar, vinegar and bean paste together along with the water.

Heat a tablespoon or two of oil in your wok over moderately high heat and then add quickly sauté the zucchini until the light parts are just beginning to turn golden brown. Remove to a bowl and then repeat with the eggplant. Probably, you will need to add extra oil as both vegetables will absorb a fair bit.

Now reheat your oil, replenishing it to make a total quantity of two tablespoons, and then sauté the garlic, scallion and ginger, stirring until their aroma is released.

Add the sauce mixture, allow it to reduce and thicken slightly, and then add the eggplant and zucchini. Stir and toss quickly until everything has heated through and the reduced sauce coats the ingredients. If the sauce is a little too dry you may add a little water.  As soon as everything is nice and hot, plate and serve immediately.

The Verdict

I served the vegetable dish with garlic ribs and rice stir-fried with radish greens. The ribs were not my best but the Yu Xiang eggplant and zucchini turned out very nicely indeed. Fish fragrant dishes are an amalgam of all the major tastes except bitter and, except for this being just a tad more salty than some might like, the balance was pretty good…


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