The Qing novel Dream of the Red Chamber has lots of food, including a recipe for a dish called Salt Fish Eggplant 茄鲞.
In the book, one of the characters describes the dish in detail to another character, but different versions of the book use different versions of the recipe. This dish from the 12th century Zhongkuilu is one of those versions.
What we are doing here is slicing eggplant into thin strips, very lightly (15 seconds) parboiling them to cook out the water, then tossing in a mix of seasoned paste, and sunning until completely dry–enough to be able to not go bad in a 12-century kitchen.
I have to say, this worked out pretty well. I was skeptical of slicing it so thin, but even these very thin strips took three hours to dry out, under a baking sun. I didn’t add all the spices in the recipe, opting instead for a basic mix of bean paste, Sichuan pepper, and dried orange peel. To my surprise, it was the orange peel that really stood out.
Now what will I do with my dried eggplant? As I was proudly setting up my drying try in a sunny spot, an older woman asked what I was making. When I told her I was drying eggpplant, she immediately shot back with, “oh that’s good with stewed pork!”
Let’s try this again…
So stewed pork it is. But those thin strips wouldn’t hold up for long.
Enter our second attempt at something a little more stew-worthy. For these, I left the peel on, cut in half and scored down the middle. I switched out the paste mixture for a simple baste in soy sauce, salt, and a bit of sugar.
These too a lot more time to dry out–about 7 hours with constant relocationg to keep them in full sun. By the late afternoon, they still weren’t completely hard-as-rock-and-will-last-forever dry, but I think they would hold up for a long time if they were properly stored. I don’t intend to wait that long–first chance I get, these bad boys are getting stewed with pork ribs and fresh corn.
So one thin, one thick. Both go in the stewed pork. The thin one for only ten minutes, the thick held up easily for two hours.
Each one was nice in its own way. Both were pleasantly chewy, though I’d consider peeling the larger cut eggplant when I try this again. The thin cut had a really luxurious texture, and held the taste of its marinade well. I’d want to try that one as a focal ingredient–just that with some light greens in a vegetable or chicken broth.
Well done, twelfth century!