Before coming to China, I had never paid much attention to the eggplant. It was a strange vegetable, and except for the eggplant parmigiana, I didn’t really know much about it. After going to numerous authentic Chinese restaurants, however, I began to see that qiézi (茄子) was a recurring dish. When I finally had an opportunity to try it, I was quite surprised to find that it was very sweet and juicy, instantly becoming a dedicated fan.
Ancient Chinese Literature
The eggplant holds an important place in China’s heart, dating back thousands of years. Ancient Chinese literature refers to the vegetable multiple times, revealing not only its domestication, but the people’s love for it through various poems. The earliest records of the eggplant in ancient Chinese literature are in Wang Bao (王褒)’s “Tong Yue” (《僮约》, “The Slave’s Contract”, 59 B.C.) and Yang Xiong(杨雄)’s “Rhapsody on Metropolitan Shu” (《蜀都赋》 Shǔ Dū Fù, 1 B. C.-1 A. C.), where the concept of the cultivation of the eggplant was first revealed, according to the Annals of Botany Company’s article “Ancient Chinese Literature Reveals Pathways of Eggplant Domestication”. This is the earliest record of the eggplant in existence as far as is known, although the exact origin of the vegetable in Asia is still debated.
According to Marie-Christine Daunay and Jules Janick’s “History and Iconography of Eggplant“, China’s early adoption of the eggplant is further attested to by its presence the “Qimi Yaoshu” (《齐民要术》, “Main Techniques for the Welfare of the People”, Southern Wei Dynasties, 420-581), a practical handbook of agriculture.
The size of the eggplant was modified from a relatively small size, as described by the “Qimi Yaoshu”, to a relatively large size in the 16th century, where it was described as a “round Chinese trichosanthes” by the “Bencau Gangmu” (《本草纲目》, “Compendium of Materia Medica”).
The taste of the vegetable was also modified from that of a bitter taste, to a sweet taste. It continued to evolve throughout the years, and according to the book “Youyang Zazu” (《酉阳杂俎》, “Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang”, 9th century), written during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it was said that, “Buddhist monks roasted and ate eggplants, the taste was very delicious.”
The eggplant became much more popular in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when it became considered proper for wealthier households to acquire the first eggplants of the season. Since this period, the popularity of the eggplant continued to increase. Today, China is the world’s leading producer of eggplants.
The eggplant is a top source of vitamin B6 and potassium, which are important for your brain, blood, heart and muscles throughout the body. The vegetable is not only a good source of dietary fiber, but it contains many minerals, amino acids and antioxidants. It is very low in fat and calories, which makes it a great balance for diets high in starches and proteins. Because it is rich in phytochemicals, it may help prevent cancer. Back in the day, medieval Persian writers even stated that it can aid in bile neutralization and ear disease treatment.
First choose an eggplant that has a smooth, glossy skin. Make sure the eggplant is heavy and firm, since lighter eggplants are overripe. Avoid any with blemishes or soft spots, making sure it has an even, dark color.
The most important step in preparing the eggplant is to make sure to always slice and salt it before cooking. Young plants need no salting, however, larger and older eggplants should sit in colander for about an hour to extract the bitter juices. Pat the vegetable dry with a paper towel before cooking it.
There are dozens of ways to cook the eggplant. Options include deep-frying, grilling, baking, steaming, sauté, pickling, etc. Keep in mind that the eggplant soaks up oil like a sponge, especially good olive oil.
Di San Xian (地三鲜 )
1 eggplant, cut into cubes
1 green pepper, cut into squares
1 potato, peeled and cut into squares
2 cloves of chopped garlic
1 tbsp of soy sauce
salt, sugar, oil
- Deep fry the potatoes and eggplant separately in a deep-frying pan until each golden brown. Remove each and drain.
- Stir-fry the green peppers with a tablespoon of oil in a separate pan for a few minutes.
- Add the fried eggplant and potatoes to the green peppers, along with the soy sauce, chopped garlic, salt and a bit of sugar.
- Continue to stir fry for a few minutes.
- Remove off the heat and enjoy!
For another healthy vegetarian recipe, click here!
Photo courtesies of Chinkerfly and Susanvg on Flickr