Like other fish-fragrant dishes, it is prepared with the flavorings used in traditional Sichuanese fish cooking: pickled chiles, garlic, ginger, and scallion. But unlike the more illustrious fish-fragrant pork slivers, this dish derives its color not from pickled chiles alone, but from pickled chiles mixed with fava beans in the famous Pixian chili bean paste.
The sauce is sweet and sour and spicy, with a reddish hue and a visible scattering of chopped ginger, garlic, and scallion. The dish is equally delicious hot or cold. I usually serve it to guests with a meat or bean curd dish and a stir-fried green vegetable, but it makes a fine lunch simply with brown rice and a salad. The eggplants, deep-fried to a buttery tenderness, are delectable. I have eaten this dish in restaurants all over Sichuan and recorded numerous different versions of the recipe. The following will, I hope, make you sigh with delight.
2. In your wok, heat oil for deep-frying to 350-400°F (at this temperature it will just be beginning to smoke). Add the eggplants in batches and deep-fry for 3-4 minutes until slightly golden on the outside and soft and buttery within. Remove and drain on paper towels.
3. Drain off the deep-frying oil, rinse the wok if necessary, and then return it to a high flame with 2-3 tablespoons of oil. Add the chili bean paste and stir-fry for about 20 seconds until the oil is red and fragrant; then add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir-fry for another 20-30 seconds until they are fragrant. Take care not to burn the flavorings—remove the wok from the heat for a few seconds or turn down the heat if necessary.
4. Add the stock, sugar, and soy sauce and mix well. Season with salt to taste if necessary.
5. Add the fried eggplants to the sauce and let them simmer gently for a few minutes to absorb some of the flavors. Then sprinkle the cornstarch mixture over the eggplants and stir in gently to thicken the sauce. Next, stir in the vinegar and scallions and leave for a few seconds until the onions have lost their rawness. Finally, remove the pan from the heat, stir in the sesame oil, and serve.
Harold McGee, the author of Keys to Good Cooking, is an expert on the chemistry behind food and cooking. McGee recently made his first trip to China, where he learned more about rice wine.