China is an amazing place. They have iPhones, 星巴克 (xīngbākè, a.k.a. “Starbucks”), wifi, microblogging, Weibo, censorship, ways around censorship… Communist slogans on red banners, public relations firms specializing in brand positioning and marketing strategies… an almost religious reverence for the past, and yet a frenzied rush towards towers of glass and steel. The place is over 4000 years old as nearly everyone will tell you, yet the China of today looks nothing like China of twenty years ago. For that matter, it looks nothing like China of last week. 拆那儿, anyone？
Two essential witnesses to this transformation are Peter Hessler and Fuchsia Dunlop. Hessler, a freelance reporter in China in the early years of this century, collected his observations in Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China. It’s fantastic. He traveled widely throughout the country and describes events through the eyes of ordinary people who are caught up in the change. He relishes the history and the potential, the chaos and the contradictions, the tension and the energy in a country that is looking backwards and yet raging forwards at the same time.
Dunlop’s Sichuan Pepper and Shark Fin Soup: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China makes a great companion. She writes more personally, of living in Sichuan Provence in 1994, back when major cities like Chengdu had no grocery stores and farmers had to bring their produce directly from the field to open air markets in the city. Like Hessler, she explores history and culture to try and make sense of the Chinese mystery around her. Unlike Hessler, she includes some really fantastic recipes.
This dish was inspired by Dunlop and her memoir, and by her Chinese cookbooks, which are excellent. Every English-speaking fan of Chinese cooking should know her.
For the marinade:
- 2 tsp light soy sauce
- 1 tsp Xiaoxing rice wine
- 1/2 tsp potato flour
For the eggplant and beef:
- 1/4 cup peanut oil
- 1 lb eggplant, cut into large bite-sized chunks
- 1/2 lb flank steak, cut diagonally against the grain into bite-sized pieces
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 inch ginger, minced
- 2 scallions, green parts only, sliced on the diagonal into 1″ pieces
For the sauce:
- 1-2 Tbsp doubanjiang (豆瓣酱, dòubànjiàng, spicy bean paste)
- 1 Tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1-2 Tbsp broth (beef, vegetable, or chicken)
- 1 tsp potato flour
- 1 tsp Shanxi vinegar (or other black Chinese vinegar)
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- Marinate the flank steak in the marinade for about 20 minutes.
- While that’s going on, sprinkle the chunks of eggplant with salt and let them drain in a colander for about 20 minutes, then rinse and dry.
- Heat the peanut oil in your wok until it just begins to smoke, then add the eggplant and fry for just a few minutes until it begins to turn golden. Move the eggplant to some paper towels to drain, and pour off all but a small coating of oil.
- When the remaining oil in the wok is just beginning to smoke, add the beef and let it sit for about one minute until it starts to brown. Then add the ginger and garlic and stir-fry for about 15 seconds. Then stir in the sauce, heat for about a minute, and add the eggplants. Stir for about a minute until everything is hot.
- Just before serving, stir in the green onions. Serve with rice.
Variations: Replace the beef with mushrooms like shiitakes and portabellos. Add some dried chiles after stir-frying the beef. Additionally, varying the amounts of vinegar and doubanjiang in the sauce will greatly change the character of this dish… those are some ways to play. Have fun.