How to Make Taiwanese-Style Eggplant

In his first book, Brandon Jew interweaves recipes and techniques with stories about their origins in Chinatown and in his own family history.

brandon jew
Taiwanese-Style Eggplant | Photo by Pete Lee
Taiwanese-Style Eggplant | Photo by Pete Lee

The following is reprinted with permission from Mister Jiu's in Chinatown: Recipes and Stories from the Birthplace of Chinese American Food by Brandon Jew and Tienlon Ho, copyright © 2021. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

My Ying Ying, my grandmother on my dad’s side, you couldn’t hold her down. “I’m taking the 11 bus,” she’d say, making her index fingers dance. That meant, after she was done teaching tai chi, she was walking through the markets in Richmond and then all the way through the markets in Chinatown. When I was lucky, she took me along (with a backup plan for the bus).

Shopping with Ying Ying in Chinatown was a competitive sport, because all the grannies wanted the best ingredients. We’d make a dozen stops to find what we needed in the markets that spilled out onto Stockton Street’s sidewalks. The vegetables drew the biggest crowds, and you had to get there early. The produce was stacked neatly around 7 a.m., just in from small farms around the Sacramento Delta down through Gilroy and the Central Valley, but by early afternoon, the grocers were slashing prices on what was left.

Many of the vegetables in the markets first grew on this side of the Pacific in backlot gardens in Chinatown and hidden corners of farms around California. Early Chinese brought varieties of ginger, greens, and alliums; squashes such as sīgwā(loofah), bitter melon, and mòuh gwā(hairy gourd); pears, plums, and loquats; and at least nine new varieties of citrus, among other produce. Chinese could rent but not own land, so many worked as migrant farmers, soon picking and planting the entire West Coast, and in the off-seasons carving wine caves in Napa and Sonoma or canning salmon in the Pacific Northwest, all while scattering the seeds of what they liked to eat. If vegetables hadn’t been such a big part of the Cantonese diet, our agricultural landscape would probably look very different today.

Ying Ying taught me to notice not just varieties and degrees of freshness but stages of growth, each with their own qualities and uses. The pea shoots with large leaves and long tendrils were sweetest when stir-fried; small leaves and wisps on crisp stems were better cooked in liquid. Chives weren’t just green stalks but flowers, buds, or pale yellow stems grown out of the sun. There were rows of bok choy varieties that looked completely different from each other. The attention she put into choosing her ingredients was as intense as I am with picking ingredients now, and I’m an ingredient nerd.

Some days, I still find my place among the grannies, looking to pick up something to experiment with or chatting with Candy Lu at ProduceLand about what’s just come in. I can confirm not much has changed since my mornings with Ying Ying.

I remember that after eating my grandparents’ food, I felt good. Cooking, in the traditional Chinese sense, is as much about pleasure and nourishment as it is about restoring balance to the body and mind. Cooks were considered doctors, too, and I take that responsibility seriously. It’s important to me to know that this is the best ingredient in all ways that I can get for you. For instance, there is such a difference in the energy of biodynamically grown plants just plucked from the stem, compared to lettuces cut, washed, and then shipped in bags a week later. I work with farmers who can bring us our greens the day they are harvested.

Our restaurant’s seasonal vegetables all come direct from small organic farms. At the farmers’ market, I stop by to see Annabelle Lenderink at Star Route Farms, one of the first organic farms in the country, for her sweet celtuce and stunning chrysanthemum greens. I call up Vince Trotter at Kibo Farms to brainstorm vegetable varieties with just the right dimensions, colors, and flavors I need. For a couple years, I was looking for the right white-stemmed varieties of bok choy. Now we’re working on Chinese celery; and soon, Chinese mustard greens. Sometimes I send seeds to farmer friends, like Scott Chang-Fleeman up at Shao Shan Farm in Bolinas, to see what grows best and with what methods in their terroir. A plot with the dry desert heat or an inland one basking in coastal breezes can completely change a plant’s character.

Not everything is a success, and it takes faith on both ends. Together, we plan what we hope to use a season from now. When unpredictable weather strikes, we pivot together. When someone brings in something incredible and fleeting, we find a way to use it on the menu for a few days until it is gone. This give and take is how we get the best ingredients and how small farmers get to take more risks. Also, it’s my small nudge against the decline in biodiversity in agriculture. The Chinatown markets first showed me the endless ingredients out there. Ten years from now, I hope to go to the farmers’ market and see even more varieties of vegetables with which to experiment, grown by farmers just as diverse, and that taste at least as good as the produce from those days with Ying Ying

Taiwanese-Style Eggplant

For this recipe, I prefer medium Chinese eggplants, the pale purple, slender ones that are ten to twelve inches long, over similar-looking but more bitter varieties. This calls for oil-blanching and, because eggplant is basically a sponge, brining them for an hour first until they are saturated but not bloated. During frying, the water turns to steam and makes the eggplant creamy and not at all oily.

Cooking is really the study of water. It takes water to grow everything, of course, and so the amount of water that remains in an ingredient after it is harvested or butchered dictates how it will heat through in the pan, whether it will soften, seize, crisp, or caramelize. You’re adding water when you use stocks, vinegars, or alcohol. You’re creating barriers to water with starches. How you cut ingredients and the order in which you add them to the pan is about controlling how and when they release the water inside them. Even the shapes of cooking vessels are about releasing or retaining moisture. When cooking with a wok, changes to water happen so quickly that split-second timing is essential.

Active Time: 25 minutes
Plan Ahead: You’ll need 1 hour for brining
Makes 4 servings
Special Equipment: Deep-fry thermometer, spider

  • 2 medium Chinese eggplants
  • 1 qt plus ¼ cup / 1L water
  • 2 Tbsp kosher salt
  • 2 qt / 1.9L neutral oil
  • 3 Tbsp oyster sauce
  • 4 tsp fish sauce
  • 2¼ tsp granulated sugar
  • 5 garlic cloves; 2 thinly sliced, 3 finely chopped
  • 1 red Fresno chile, cut into thin rings
  • ¼ cup / 5g packed Thai or opal basil leaves, torn in half if large

1. Trim and discard the eggplant ends, then cut into thick wedges, like steak frites—first cut crosswise into three 3-inch chunks, then halve those lengthwise repeatedly until you have 1-inch-thick wedges.

2. In a large bowl, combine 1 qt / 950ml of the water and the salt and whisk until the salt is dissolved. Add the eggplant, making sure it is submerged, and let sit at room temperature for 1 hour.

3. Fill a 5-quart or larger Dutch oven with the neutral oil and secure a deep-fry thermometer on the side. Set over medium-high heat and warm the oil to 375°F.

4. Meanwhile, drain the eggplant and dry very well with paper towels. In a small bowl, combine the remaining ¼ cup / 60ml water, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Set this sauce aside.

5. Add the sliced garlic to the oil and fry until crisp and light golden brown, about 30 seconds. Use a spider to transfer them to a paper towel to drain.

6. Check that the oil in the Dutch oven is still at 375°F. Set up for the second fry by setting a dry wok or large skillet over high heat.

7. Carefully slide all the eggplant into the oil. Stir until the eggplant has darkened and caramelized at the edges, about 1 minute. Remove the eggplant with the spider and drain well over the Dutch oven, then transfer to the screaming-hot wok.

8. Immediately add the chopped garlic and most of the chile rings (reserve a few for garnish) to the eggplant in the wok and toss everything to combine. Add the reserved sauce and continue to toss until the sauce thickens to a glaze and the eggplants are browned at the edges, about 1 minute. Add most of the basil leaves and toss until wilted.

9. Transfer the contents of the wok to a serving platter. Crumble the fried garlic and scatter it over the eggplant with the rest of the basil and chile rings. Serve immediately.

Buy your own copy of Mister Jiu's in Chinatown: Recipes and Stories from the Birthplace of Chinese American Food at AmazonBarnes and NoblePowells.comIndieBound, or any online bookseller of your choice.

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