In Chinese poetry and art criticism the word kuai can mean “odd” as in downright weird, or “strange” as in fascinating and unusual. In cooking, there is no such confusion. “Strange flavor” dishes are always extraordinary—spicy, subtle, sweet, tart, and tangy all at the same time, an ineffable blend of tastes. Usually, a strange flavor sauce has sesame paste as a component and is credited with a Szech-wanese origin, but mine is clear and thin in a Shanghai mode. Instead of coating the eggplant, it permeates it.
Preheat the oven to 475° and set the rack in the middle of the oven. Tear off the leaves, rinse the eggplant, and pat dry. Prick in several places with a fork to act as steam vents during baking.
Bake the eggplant in a baking dish or on a baking sheet until it gives easily when you press it with a chopstick or spoon, about 20–40 minutes depending on size. Turn the eggplant over once midway through baking to insure even cooking. Remove to a plate and allow to cool. The eggplant will look like a deflated, wrinkled balloon.
Once cool, the eggplant may be sealed airtight and refrigerated for up to 2 days before saucing.
Discard the stem end and cut the eggplant in half lengthwise.
Peel large Western eggplant fully. The peel should tear off easily with your fingers. Asian eggplant can be peeled entirely, or you may leave on the bit of peel that inevitably clings to the flesh and is quite good tasting. Drain Western eggplant of any watery liquid, but reserve the thick, brown “liqueur” often exuded by Asian eggplant.
To purée the eggplant, cut it into large chunks, then process in a food processor or blender until completely smooth. For shreds, tear the eggplant into long, pencil-thin strips with your fingers. It is slower than slicing with a cleaver, but the texture is inimitable and the irregular contours drink up the sauce. Once puréed or shredded, the eggplant may be sealed airtight and refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature before saucing.
Mince the garlic, ginger, and scallion until fine in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife, scraping down as necessary. Alternatively, mince the ingredients by hand. Put in a dish alongside the red pepper. Sealed airtight, the aromatics may be refrigerated for several hours.
Combine the soy, sugar, vinegar, and water, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Use the larger amount of soy sauce and sugar for Western eggplant.
Have the eggplant and the remaining ingredients all within easy reach of your stovetop.
Heat a wok or medium-size, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the com or peanut oil, swirl to glaze the pan, then lower the heat to medium. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle a bit of garlic, add the aromatics, nudging the chili flakes in last. Stir until fully fragrant, about 20–40 seconds, adjusting the heat so they foam without browning. When the fragrance is pronounced, stir the liquids and scrape them into the pan. Stir, wait for the liquid to boil around the edges, then add the eggplant and stir to combine it with the sauce and heat it through. Turn off the heat and taste. Adjust if required with a bit more sugar to bring the spiciness to the fore, then add the sesame oil and stir to combine. Scrape the eggplant into a serving bowl of contrasting color, then smooth the top with the spatula.
Serve the eggplant hot, tepid, at room temperature, or chilled, garnished with scallion. Left to sit for several hours or overnight, the flavors will enlarge and the spiciness will become pronounced. Cover tightly and refrigerate once cool.
Leftovers keep beautifully 3–4 days, sealed airtight and refrigerated.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.