Yu Xiang Eggplant, or 魚香茄子, is true to the classic Sichuan ‘fish-fragrant’ form, and is sweet, sour, and fiery with 辣豆瓣酱 Chili Bean Paste.
I have previously introduced the interesting Sichuan ‘Yu Xiang’, or ‘Fish-fragrant’ style of dish in my recipe for Fish-fragrant Pork Belly with Pineapple. As I mentioned in that post, Fish-fragrant dishes have neither the aroma, nor the flavor of fish, but derive their unique flavor profile from a specific combination of aromatic ingredients. A very popular dish in Sichuan is 魚香茄子, or ‘Fish-fragrant Eggplant’, and I have extended that basic theme in the dish you see above with the inclusion of batons of Zucchini as well.
Fish-fragrant dishes are usually identified on Chinese restaurant menus by the characters 魚香 (Yúxiāng), followed by characters identifying the chief ingredient. In English, the dish is sometimes directly translated and described as ‘Fish-fragrant’, but you also get accurate, but slightly less appealing translations as ‘Fish-flavor’, ‘Fish-Smelling’, and even ‘Fish Odor’.
Sometimes, you will see dishes on Chinese menus where the main ingredient is described as being served ‘with Garlic Sauce’, or ‘with Spicy Garlic Sauce’. In many cases, if you look to the Chinese name, you will encounter the 魚香 characters.
Why are dishes without fish called ‘Fish-fragrant’?
Well, first, 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 a fermented Sichuan Chili-bean Paste enlivened with sugar and vinegar.
Many sources confidently assert (incorrectly, in my opinion) that the name arises because the flavoring style was originally used for fish dishes. In another theory, 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 Hunan, thus memorializing the origin of the dish. It is a clever suggestion but not one that I believe.
Fuchsia Dunlop, author of the excellent Sichuan cookery book ‘Land of Plenty’, says that, at one time, the dish was spiced up with brine pickled chilies, in which a carp was fermented for additional flavor ( hence ‘fish-fragrance’), and this seems the most likely origin of the name to me. Nowadays, the pickled chili is replaced with the spicy bean paste known as ‘Dou Ban Jiang’. This has the heat of chili, while the fermented bean paste adds the same umami depth as would have been by the fermented carp.
Ingredient Notes for Yu Xiang Eggplant
The Sichuan Chili Bean Paste called for in the Recipe card below is the sort often called ‘Doubanjiang’ in recipe books, or on product labels. This name derives from 辣豆瓣酱 or ‘là dòubàn jiàng’, and refers to a sauce, or paste made by fermenting Broad Beans with Chili, Salt and Flour.
There are many such products commonly available, some of which are sold in jars, some in foil bags, and others in plastic pouches. There is a wide variety in styles, with some being very dark and with a chunky texture, others lighter, redder, and with a relatively smooth consistency. All tend to be quite salty, but this also varies from product to product and you need to take this into account when using any of them in dishes.
The product pictured above is a Doubanjiang from the Pixian district in Sichuan (now knowns Pidu), which is especially well known for its variety of the Paste. You need not use this brand, necessarily, but it is a good one, with a nice bright taste.
How to make 魚香茄子
First, slice the eggplant and zucchini into fairly thick batons and then mix the sugar, vinegar and bean paste together along with the water to use later for the sauce.
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.
This dish can serve four as part of a Chinese meal with several dishes. Above, you can see a portion of 魚香茄子 served with Radish Greens fried Rice, and some of my Dry Garlic Spareribs.
Your Recipe Card: for 魚香茄子
Yu Xiang Eggplant and Zucchini
- 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
- Slice the eggplant and zucchini into fairly thick batons.
- Mix the sugar, vinegar and bean paste together along with the water and set aside.
- Quickly brown the Zucchini batons in oil over moderately high heat, remove them to a bowl and repeat with the Eggplant.
- Sauté the Garlic, Scallion and Ginger in two Tablespoons of oil until their aroma is released.
- Add the sauce mixture and when it begins to reduce and thicken, stir the Eggplant and Zucchini.
- Cook until heated through and serve immediately.