Fish-fragrant eggplant (yu heung ke zi in Cantonese and yu xiang qie zi in Mandarin) is a dish that originated in Sichuan province, where, despite its name, it is made without fish. In Hong Kong, though, the version served at most Cantonese restaurants – from upmarket places to dai pai dong – contains dried salted fish.
Many restaurants serve this bubbling in a clay pot (in which case, the dish is called yu heung ke zi bo), which is rustic and keeps the contents hot. Because the ingredients simmer longer, the very tender pieces of eggplant soak up all the flavours. Briefly cook the ingredients in a wok, scrape into a clay pot and simmer, covered, on the stovetop for about 15 minutes. Check occasionally that it is not drying out, and if it is, add more liquid. Alternatively, simply simmer the ingredients for longer in the covered wok.
There are many types of salted fish. Choose a moist, meaty fillet, not one that’s too dry or bony. The eggplants should be as skinny as possible.
Put the minced pork in a bowl and add the soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, salt, cornstarch, white pepper and 5ml (1tsp) of cooking oil. Mix well to combine, then set this aside while preparing the other ingredients.
Briefly rinse the salted fish under cool running water, then pat it dry with paper towels. Run your fingers back and forth across the skin and flesh to feel for scales and bones and if you find any, remove them. Cut the salted fish into tiny dice.
Slice the banana chillies on the diagonal into 5mm (¼ in) pieces. Roughly chop the garlic. If the eggplants are very skinny, cut them in half lengthwise and then into 5cm (2in) lengths. If the eggplants are fatter, quarter them lengthwise before cutting them into 5cm (2in) lengths.
Place a wok over a high flame and when it’s hot add 25ml (5tsp) of cooking oil. Swirl the wok to coat it with the oil. Add half the eggplant and stir-fry for about two minutes, to lightly coat the pieces with the oil and until the vegetable starts to lose its deep purple colour. Transfer to a large bowl and repeat the process with more oil and the remaining eggplant.
Place the wok (no need to wash it) back over a high flame and when it’s hot, add 15ml (1tbsp) of oil. Place the marinated pork in the wok and use a metal spatula to break it into small pieces. Add the salted fish, banana chillies and garlic and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. Mix in the doubanjiang and chilli sauce.
Add the eggplant back into the wok and mix well. Stir in about 60ml of water, then lower the heat, cover the wok with the lid and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring often. (Or put the ingredients in a clay pot and bring to the simmer on the stovetop. Cover with the lid and proceed with the recipe.)
Add the eggplant back into the wok and mix well. Stir in about 60ml (4tbsp) of water, then lower the heat, cover the wok with the lid and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring often. (Or put the ingredients in a clay pot and bring to the simmer on the stove top. Cover with the lid and proceed with the recipe.)
Lift the lid and stir the ingredients, then taste for seasonings. If you like it spicier, add more doubanjiang and/or chilli sauce, sprinkling in more sugar to balance the heat. The mixture should be saucy – if it seems too dry, add more water. Stir the ingredients again, then cover with the lid and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring often. Cook until the eggplant is very tender but not falling apart. Check the seasonings and correct, if necessary.
Scoop the mixture into a serving dish (or serve out of the clay pot). Cut the spring onions into 5mm (¼in) pieces and scatter them over the ingredients before serving with steamed rice and stir-fried vegetables.