Aubergines with Chili, Ginger, Garlic and Coriander

Here’s a recipe from mum. Ever since grandma moved from Los Angeles to Chengdu almost, gosh, seven years ago, mum’s been big on cooking in the same bold, spicy, tantalizing style as her Western Chinese cousins there do. The brother-sister duo -- imagine their twin-like resemblances in rosy-cheeked features, stout figures and generous expressions of cheer and serenity -- are excellent cooks who, in their can-do spirit, effortlessly conjure a 12-course Sichuan feast every first night of our visit (which sustains us through three solid days of leftover re-mixes).

A rainbow of dishes effortlessly float off the blades of their knives, in a succession distinct tones of well-balanced flavours. So, y'know how Sichuan is known for spicy and tongue-tingling “ma-la” (numb-hot) flavours? Yup, sounds nice, love it, but parading 12 shades of ma-la is as senseless as conceiving of 50 shades of – no.

What mom’s cousins do is layer on the spice levels, separating distinct flavours of dried chilies (earthy), fresh chilies (sprightly), red peppercorns (buzzy), green peppercorns (zippy), garlic (sharp-hot) and ginger (sweet-warm). The small plates that float by ‘round the lazy Susan include hand-made Sichuan-peppercorn salami, smacked cucumbers with fresh garlic, the famous fuqifeipian (“fu-chee-FAY-pian”; 夫妻肺片) offal cold cuts slicked in a cool pool of red chili oil, and so forth.

This aubergine salad rounds out the flavor wheel with bright flashes of fresh chili, garlic and ginger… Plus an extra spin where the aromatics are given the Chinese sizzling-oil treatment (not a massage option).

You pile the blanched and cooled aubergines in a tall, pretty stack like logs for the hearth. Then pour over the puckersome, vinegared soy sauce. Then prettily arrange the minced garlic, ginger, coriander and chili, whose heavenly fragrance is quickly filling your kitchen. Then heat up a few tablespoons of oil to smoking point and go Medieval on these aromatics, ladling on the hot oil from above and watching them foam and fizzle and steam, releasing a warming scent.

Because I’ve been meticulous about collecting measurements for this Chinese salads recipe collection, I’d asked mom to go against her maternal instincts and to write exact tea/tablespoon measures for our gastronomic betterment. I also wanted to be able to exactly duplicate a dish of hers. I’ve finally reached a point, in my official late twenties, where I’m deeply and remorsefully appreciating mum, remembering the huge things she’s done for me and my sis and recalling the little ones that slipped my mind, like how rarely it is that she has time to cook, let alone for me on the few times a year we see each other.

We’ve just celebrated our shared 9th January birthday together, too (crazy! Never gets old, not even after knowing this my whole life). This is the first time I’ve followed a recipe from top to bottom from mom and she nailed the measurements. Okay, I couldn't resist reducing the sizzling oil to 2 Tablespoons, which was just enough to bathe the chili-garlic-ginger-coriander party confetti and, like most Chinese salad recipes here, is a lower ratio of oil-to-liquid than a typical "Western" one. Try this one out and see if you don’t also have feel-good vibes.

 

Aubergine Salad with Chili, Ginger, Garlic and Coriander

Serves 4 as a cold starter, 2 as a salad with leafy greens

  • 2 long and lean Chinese aubergines, sliced into matchsticks about 5cm long x 1.5cm wide
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 piece of ginger about half the weight of the garlic, minced very finely
  • 1 or 2 fresh red chilies, de-seeded and sliced at a diagonal
  • 8 sprigs of fresh coriander plus more leaves for garnishing
  • 1 sprig of spring onion, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil

Sauce:

  • 2 Tbsp premium light soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp white sugar
  • 1 Tbsp water
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp sugar
  • ½ tsp sesame oil
  • 1/8 tsp green Sichuan peppercorn oil (optional)
  1. In a large, wide pot bring about 3 litres of water to the boil with 1 tsp salt, 1 Tbsp  vegetable oil and 1 Tbsp white vinegar. When at a full rolling boil, add the aubergine matchsticks and flip them skin-side down. Let boil for 3 minutes then empty into a colander in the sink and rinse with cold water. Set aside to drain off excess water.

  2. Combine the sauce ingredients and stir well.

  3. Stack the aubergines on a dish with enough depth to contain a shallow pool of liquid. Flip some aubergines skin-side-up and others flesh-side-up for pretty points.

  4. Layer the chili, garlic, ginger and cilantro in a line on top of the stacked aubergines.

  5. Heat the 2 Tbsp oil in a small saucepan until you can just start to see it smoke. Turn off the heat and bring the saucepan to the salad, pouring the hot oil evenly on top of the aromatics.

  6. Let this salad sit for 10 minutes to absorb the flavours.

  7. If you like it punchier, you can prepare this salad 6 hours ahead of time and keep in a sealed glass container (or clingfilmed bowl) for the aubergines to suck up the tart, savoury sauce.

Suggested leafy greens pairing: kale, baby spinach.