Soft, creamy eggplant seasoned with pungent, fragrant seasonings, Chinese eggplant with garlic sauce is simply irresistible! This recipe provides many tips on how to achieve an authentic taste without making it overly greasy. Substitute ideas are included.
A Classic Dish with “Fish Fragrance”
If you are a fan of Sichuan cuisine and you love eating eggplant (a.k.a aubergine, brinjal), don’t miss today’s recipe: Chinese Eggplant with Garlic Sauce. This classic delicacy is also known as Fish Fragrant Eggplant which is a more accurate translation of its Chinese name Yu Xiang Qiezi/鱼香茄子. Essentially, it’s a stir-fry dish consisting of eggplant pieces, minced meat (vegetarian/vegan options explained later), pickled chili and a multi-layered thick sauce.
You might be puzzled by the ingredient list which doesn’t include any fish. It is believed that this dish got the name because its seasoning is similar to what locals use to prepare fish. Another explanation is that the pickled chili used in the dish was traditionally fermented with a whole fish in the jar (Check out the photo I took on one of my Culinary Tours of China).
What ingredients do you need
First, let’s talk about what you need to have at hand to cook eggplant with garlic sauce. Like my usual approach, I’m listing the ingredients required to make it as authentic as possible. In a later part of this post, substitution ideas are provided to make it more accessible or suitable for your diet.
- Minced meat (see substitutes below)
- Chinese pickled chilli (see substitutes below)
- Black rice vinegar
- Shaoxing rice wine
- Dark soy sauce
- Sesame oil
- Garlic, ginger & scallions
How to choose eggplant
For the best taste & texture, I suggest you use Chinese/Japanese eggplant which is narrow and long in shape. Compare to the globe eggplant commonly found in US/European supermarkets, they have a brighter purple colour, thinner skin, fewer seeds and a sweeter taste. If you wish to use globe eggplant, you may wish to peel it as the skin can be tough to chew.
If possible, look for eggplant that is young and fresh, meaning recently harvested instead of being on the shelf for days. They have a creamier texture and a sweeter taste once cooked. Aged eggplant tends to have chewy flesh, more seeds and a bitter flavour.
Minced meat & vegetarian/vegan options
Traditional recipes for eggplant with garlic sauce call for minced pork which adds a rich taste to the dish. You can find many examples of this kind of combination in Sichuan cuisine, such as Mapo Tofu, Dry-fried Green Beans, etc. Minced beef, chicken or turkey work well too. So please feel free to substitute.
Wish to make it vegetarian/vegan friendly? Here are a few options:
- Use tofu to replace minced meat. In this case, choose the one with firm texture which can be broken into crumb-like pieces with your fingers. Fry the usual way.
- Fry shiitake mushrooms instead of minced meat. Both fresh and dried ones work (although I prefer the latter for its richer umami taste). Chop them into small pieces.
- Or, skip the minced meat altogether. It will still taste very nice.
How to make a tasty garlic sauce
Sour, sweet, spicy, umami & aromatic, classic Sichuan garlic sauce offers a complex taste. Once you understand its formula, you can improvise and create many delicious dishes using garlic sauce. Here is the explanation of how each ingredient contributes.
Garlic, Ginger & Scallions
I call them “three treasures” of the Chinese kitchen. They all taste pungent and aromatic in their own ways. Be generous in quantity. I like separating scallions into two parts: the white stem part goes into the wok with garlic and ginger. The green part is then added at the very end of the cooking process. This way, it retains a bright colour and fresh taste.
Black rice vinegar, Shaoxing rice wine & Sugar
Black rice vinegar, Shaoxing rice wine & Sugar are the key condiments in making garlic sauce. To achieve a balanced taste, I suggest the following ratio:
- 3 parts black rice vinegar (The best variety is Zhenjiang/Chinkiang vinegar, 镇江香醋)
- 3 parts Shaoxing rice wine (For this dish, you may replace it with regular white wine or Chinese Bai Jiu/白酒)
- 2 parts sugar
Pickled chilli and its substitutes
Although translated as “garlic” sauce, the soul of this sauce, in my opinion, is Sichuan pickled chili. Pungent and aromatic, it usually comes in jars with whole chili pepper in brine. You would need to finely chop it prior to cooking. If you have trouble sourcing it, here are my two solutions:
- Try my recipe for Homemade Pickled Chilli Garlic Sauce /剁椒 (see image above) which is a chopped version commonly used in Hunan cuisine. It’s very simple to make and works really well for garlic sauce seasoned stir-fries. Also, you can use it to create many other dishes, so I highly recommend you add it to your homemade condiment collection.
- Alternatively, use Sichuan chilli bean paste. Also known as spicy Doubanjiang/辣豆瓣酱), it’s a fermented paste made of chili and broad beans. You can find it in many Sichuan delicacies, for example, Mapo Tofu, Sichuan Boiled Fish, etc. It tastes quite different from pickle chili but works well with eggplant.
A note on quantity: please use my recipe as a reference and feel free to adjust the quantity based on the spiciness of the particular pickled chilli that you have. If you use Sichuan chilli bean paste as a substitute, reduce the volume by half as it tastes saltier.
The Perfect Stir-fry Workflow
Now you’ve got all the ingredients at hand to make stir-fried eggplant with garlic sauce, let me guide you through each cooking step with extra tips to make it an enjoyable experience.
Step 1: Prepare the eggplant
Eggplant is a tricky vegetable to cook. To achieve the desired tender texture, you’ll need to cook it on its own before stir-frying with other ingredients. The most common way is deep-frying which isn’t my preferred method (It’s such a hassle and I don’t like my dish overly greasy). There are two simple alternative ways which don’t involve any oil.
- Boiling. Add chopped eggplant pieces into a pot of boiling water with a little salt. Cover and cook for about 3 mins until it becomes soft(but not mushy). Drain in a colander and press gently to remove any excess water.
- Steaming. Put eggplant pieces in a plate. Steam over medium heat for about 10 mins.
You might think the cooked eggplant looks too wet. Don’t worry. The moisture will evaporate easily during stir-frying. Its spongy pulp becomes soft thus will pick up the flavour from the seasoning efficiently.
Step 2: Mix the sauce
When it comes to quick stir-frying, it’s very important to have everything within reach before you start cooking. If there is a sauce involved, you must mix it beforehand.
Step 3: Fry the meat & pickled chili
Pour oil into a hot wok over high heat. Stir in the minced meat. Fry until pale. Then add pickled chilli, garlic, ginger and white part of the scallions. Sizzle until fragrant. If you are using a traditional carbon steel wok, follow the “hot wok cold oil/热锅凉油” method: heat the empty wok until smoking, then pour in the oil and add the meat. This way, the meat won’t stick to the wok.
Step 4: Stir in the eggplant
Add the pre-cooked eggplant. Fry until it’s piping hot. Then pour in the sauce. Don’t forget to stir the sauce beforehand as the cornstarch tends to sink to the bottom.
Step 5: Garnish & serve
Give everything a quick stir. Once the sauce thickens, turn off the heat immediately. Sprinkle the green part of the scallions. Dish out and serve. It’s usually served with steamed rice, along with other savoury dishes. Alternatively, it makes a wonderful topping for noodle dishes.
Other dishes using garlic sauce
Check out the following recipes to learn how to use garlic sauce to cook other ingredients:
Eggplant with Garlic Sauce (Yu Xiang Qiezi, 鱼香茄子)
For the eggplant
- 400 g eggplant(aubergine) - 14oz, see note 1
- ½ teaspoon salt
For the sauce
- 1½ tablespoon black rice vinegar
- 1½ tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine - see note 2
- ½ tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1½ tablespoon cornstarch
- 4 tablespoon water
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1½ tablespoon cooking oil
- 50 g minced meat (pork/beef/chicken) - ⅓ cup, see note 3 for vegetarian options
- 2 tablespoon picked chili garlic sauce - see note 4 & 5 for substitutes
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoon minced ginger
- 2 stalks scallions, finely chopped - separate the white & green parts
Prepare the eggplant
- Add the salt to a pot of water. Bring it to a full boil while slicing the eggplant into batons.
- Put the eggplant into the boiling water. Cover and cook for 3-4 minutes until it becomes soft (but not mushy).
- Drain in a colander and press gently to remove any excess water.
Mix the sauce
- In a bowl, combine all the ingredients for the sauce. Set aside.
Stir fry the dish
- Pour oil into a hot wok over high heat. Stir in the minced meat. Fry until pale.
- Add pickled chilli, garlic, ginger and white part of the scallions. Sizzle until fragrant.
- Stir in the eggplant. Fry until it’s piping hot. Pour in the sauce (stir well beforehand). Stir to coat evenly.
- Turn off the heat once the sauce thickens. Sprinkle the green part of the scallions. Dish out and serve immediately.
- Replace minced meat with tofu. Choose the firm type then break it into crumbs with your fingers.
- Replace minced meat with finely chopped shiitake mushrooms.
- Simply skip the minced meat.
NUTRITION DISCLOSURE: Nutritional information on this website is provided as a courtesy to readers. It should be considered estimates. Please use your own brand nutritional values or your preferred nutrition calculator to double check against our estimates.
One of the most delicious dishes I’ve had in a while…that said, we eat a lot of spicy food, but my mouth is on fire and I’m going to halve the chili garlic sauce next time as I find the other flavors slightly overpowered. Love the contrast in textures of the soft eggplant and the crispy ground pork.
Wei Guo says
Very happy to hear your feedback Lauren. Yes the contrast in textures is indeed a highlight.
I really like this recipe, it is my second favorite eggplant dish. Now I thought I’d share my vegan replacement, I like to cook this with chopped cashews – I like them crunshy so I stir fry them along with the garlic but you can also boil them before adding to soften them.
Btw. I also had the cornstarch problem that some have mentioned before. I do use twice the amount of water but that is ok, I like more sauce anyway.
Wei Guo says
Nice to hear your vegan twist!