Smooth. Slithery. Soft. The texture of well cooked aubergines is their defining characteristic. More so than the gently nutty flavour, the pendulous shape, the glorious shades of purple. The main thing aubergines really bring to a dish is their delightfully soft and fleshy texture.
Not to minimise the taste, which neatly side steps big bullying flavours to come through, between and around them, linking and accentuating as it goes. Clever things aubergines. This particular ugly duckling of a dish, a marriage to an intense, pungent and spicy sauce, highlights this rare ability to shine through.
The sauce is a cacophony of clamouring ingredients held (teeteringly) in balance. Chilli heat and intense soy saltiness square up to the deep savoury tang of black rice vinegar. Sichuan pepper numb your lips as pungent garlic almost overwhelms your tastebuds. It’s a monster of a sauce, but a lovable one.
The aubergine provides a soft backdrop to all this Big Flavour. Take a mouthful and you get cool, slippery flesh accompanied by a deep blast of the sauce. Then the gentle nutty, distinctly auberginey, taste comes through as the heat dies down and the sugar and sesame come to the fore. Finally, when you swallow the chilli leaves a warm trail down your gullet and your lips are left tingling and slightly numb.
Serves 2-4, depending on what else you have with it
Cooked properly aubergine can be a softly spoken monarch among vegetables. Usually you have to use gallons of oil, which the spongey flesh just sucks right up, but not here. Ever since seeing a dish of steamed aubergine on Tamarind and Thyme, i have been wanting to try out this new (for me) way of cooking it. And it works. The steaming keeps the flesh moist and soft, there is no drying out, no burnt chewy bitterness. Just smooth, unctuous flesh.
The sauce is based on one by Fuchsia Dunlop from her Sichuan Cookery book. It;s meant to go with flat rice noodles and cold chicken, but I think it really suits the steamed aubergine.
3 slender Oriental aubergines (or one big pendulous Dutch type)
1.5 tblsp Shao Xing rice wine
1.5tblsp dark soy
1.5 tblsp Chinkiang vinegar
3 tblsp chilli oil + sediment
2 tblsp sesame paste
1 tsp sichuan pepper corns roast and ground
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tblsp caster sugar
2 tsp light soy
1 tblsp sesame oil
Steam the aubergines for 15-20 minutes, until their flesh is tender and starting to fall apart.
While the aubergine is steaming, mix together the sauce ingredients.
Chop the aubergine into bite sized pieces and add about half the sauce and toss. Leave to cool and serve with steamed rice or noodles.