Chinese cooking has always been daunting, the sort of thing best left to my mother, one of the best cooks I know. Delicious Hakka dishes would emerge from the kitchen at the back of the house, but they were just part of the fabric of my childhood in between all the tuition classes, extracurriculars and hours spent playing Neopets. When I was much younger my mother would occasionally call me to help out with the cooking, and I would very reluctantly go. (I was a singularly unhelpful child.) In retrospect, all her attempts to impart her kitchen secrets must have at least rubbed off on me. (I also inherited her fondness for cookbooks, albeit to an even unhealthier degree.)
Still, of all the dishes I’ve attempted over the years, very few have actually been Chinese. Despite being Chinese, the food I grew up eating isn’t part of my daily repertoire at all. For one thing, I’m more accustomed to cooking on an electric stove rather than gas, and so many principal Chinese dishes taste better infused with the breath of the wok – stir-fries being a case in point. Plus, cooking with a wok is some scary shit. I flinch in the face of a gas-fired wok, and my weak arms are awful at shoveling the food aroud the wok properly. Also, throwing chopped garlic into hot, sizzling oil and stirring it while the oil roars and flares up and spits at your arms and face is terrifying – it makes adding water to a dry caramel seem like petting a duck in comparison.
The main reason, though, is that there is the burden of Expectations To Live Up To. Trying to replicate one of my mother’s dishes means attempting to recreate decades of experience dueling with a wok. (I bet Chinese line cooks all have great biceps.) Even when I tried cooking some dishes under her supervision, it would never taste as good. You could instantly tell the difference between her cooking and mine. Far easier, then, to turn to baking exotic Western confectionery for which there was no cultural benchmark to be measured against! There is a Platonic ideal of Hakka cuisine, and its place is in my mother’s kitchen. So until my mother decides to write a cookbook, or when I get my grubby paws on this baby, actually making Hakka food part of my go-to repertoire will remain an elusive dream. For now, though, I’ll be continuing my forays into Sichuanese cuisine – free of nostalgic associations and high expectations, but still falling under a rubric of familiar tastes and textures.
London weather of late has started to feel more like Britain should than it has, and by that I mean it’s been a bloody miserable and wet week with a spot of hail on Friday, the sort of weather that necessitates hot, hot, hot food to stave off the imminent May chills. So it was I found myself flipping through – not for the first time – Mrs. Chiang’s Cookbook. If you held a gun to my head and asked me whether I preferred this or Fuchsia Dunlop’s books, I wouldn’t be able to answer. But it is a fucking fantastic book, and if you want to be making amazing Sichuanese food, this is probably the first one you should start with.
Red-cooked eggplant (hongshao qiezi) is great any-weather food, but it is particularly suited for cold, rainy days when you have some time to devote to your chopping block. Mise en place, as any cook will tell you, is important, and having all your ingredients prepared before beginning the cooking process makes it all much easier. But time spent dicing ginger into matchhead-sized pieces, I find, is always improved by some good background music.
Besides, the result is highly worth the bother: a powerfully flavoured, unctuous stew-like dish that demands to be devoured with mountains of white rice. There’s a continuous, spicy-hot tingle from the red pepper paste, but also the salty richness of soy sauce and sesame oil, how the garlic has permeated the tender aubergine and pork, the sharp freshness of ginger enlivening the whole dish and preventing it from being merely sloppy and cloying. It’s the stuff of gluttonous eating: the first time I made this I scraped my plate as though starved, then went back for seconds, and thirds. It is frighteningly addictive, and so very, very good.
I have no doubt that my mother, armed with her wok and gas-fired stove, would turn out a better result from this recipe. But I think the electric stove’s done a pretty good job here.
Red-Cooked Aubergine and Minced Pork (Hongshao qiezi)
via Mrs. Chiang’s Cookbook
For this recipe – and any Chinese or Japanese recipe calling for minced meat, to be honest – avoid the packages of lean minced pork at the supermarket: it’s too lean. Fat is flavour: if possible, chop by hand or food processor a piece of pork with a decent amount of fat. Repeat after me: fat is flavour.
If you can, use smaller aubergines rather than large ones – long, Chinese aubergines seem particularly good. The amount of red pepper paste specified is just nice, but I believe it’s possible to reduce it to your liking if it’s too hot. I used gochujang and found it to be a perfectly acceptable substitute. It is important that the ginger be finely chopped. It is a pain in the ass, but overly-large chunks of ginger, I find, distract from the unctuousness of the dish, rather like having sand in your swimsuit at the beach. The final result should not be overly salty: the second time, I erred on the side of too much salt and soy sauce, but this is easily corrected with more sugar.
This recipe doubles up nicely with no adverse effects, can be prepared in advance – even days! – and reheats beautifully. What more could you ask from a dish?
225g ground pork (0.5lb)
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
8 scallions (spring onions are fine)
2 medium eggplants (approx. 1lb, or 453g)
7 – 9 cloves garlic
1-inch piece fresh ginger (approx. 2.5cm)
5 tbsp peanut oil (I used sunflower)
2 tbsp hot pepper paste (or gochujang)
1 tbsp granulated sugar
1.5 tsp salt
2/3 cup water
Put the pork in a bowl and add the soy sauce and sesame oil to it.
Clean the scallions or spring onions, and slice away the roots – less than half a centimetre from the bottom. Chop them, both green part and white, crosswise into tiny pieces, about 1/8 inch wide – very, very finely. Add half the chopped scallions to the pork and mix thoroughly. Reserve the rest of the scallions for later use.
Peel the aubergines/eggplants, then cut them into 1-inch cubes. (Mine were unevenly sized, but they came out just fine.)
Smash the garlic cloves with the flat side of your cleaver or knife, then peel. Chop the garlic into little pieces, about the size of grains of uncooked rice. Set aside. Peel the ginger – I like to use a teaspoon for this – then chop it into even tinier pieces the size of a match head.
Heat your wok or pan over a high heat. When it feels pretty hot, pour in the oil. It will be ready to cook with when the first tiny bubbles form and a few small wisps of smoke appear.
When the oil is ready, toss in the chopped ginger and garlic and stir-fry for about 30 seconds, using your cooking shovel or spoon in a scooping motion to stir them around in the hot oil and keep them from burning. Add the hot pepper paste and stir-fry it, together with the ginger and garlic, for another 30 seconds or so.
Add the pork and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally to break up any large lumps of meat that are sticking together and to see that all the meat gets exposed to the hot oil. After this, add the aubergine and stir-fry everything over high heat for about 4 minutes, gently scooping the pieces of aubergine off the sides of the pan and into the middle. (If you’ve doubled the recipe, fear not: your pan might look like it’ll overflow with aubergine, but it shrinks to nothingness.)
Sprinkle the sugar and salt over the eggplant mixture, then continue to stir-fry for 2 minutes more.
Pour in the water and add the reserved scallions. Wait until the water comes to a boil, then cover the pan, without reducing the heat, and let the eggplant cook for another 15 minutes, until it has become soft and has absorbed the flavours of the meat sauce. It will then be ready to serve.
Yield: Lots, but less than you might think.