China: Spicy Sichuan Eggplant with Kale

Posted by on Sep 1, 2014 in Recipes | 8 comments

My Vegan MoFo culinary tour of the world starts in China. Oh China! A land of contradictions, deep history and culture, and some really, really great food. 

I visited western China in November 2007, stopping in Chengdu and Kunming. Eating vegan in Western China was actually pretty tough. I’m open-minded when it comes to food: if it’s vegan, I’ll try it. At least once. Yet, in China there were things I really wish I didn’t try, like soy milk and soup that tasted as if they had been made with putrid water. Sometimes, I had no idea what I was eating, although I was pretty sure it was of some vegetable origin. Once or twice, I made do with rice. But on a few occasions I ate like a queen. I had some of the best eggplant and chinese broccoli of my life in Chengdu. 

A moment of solitude...

A moment of tranquility

I was traveling for work and so got to see a side of China that few do: TB hospitals and community-level treatment, gay outreach centers doing HIV prevention work, and methadone clinics, among other things.

An incredible drag show at a gay club, that interspersed education on HIV and condom use

An incredible drag show at a gay club, that interspersed education on HIV and condom use

It was an incredibly interesting trip that brought into sharp relief the complexities of the country.  It was fascinating to see how China has harnessed capitalism to drive economic development.  

Downtown Chengdu

Downtown Chengdu

Chengdu itself was a bastion of modernity, with a downtown that could have been any downtown anywhere (except maybe for the bicycles). 

We brought out the crowds...

We brought out the crowds…

Yet, a couple of hours outside of Chengdu life goes on as it has for decades and the benefits of development are illusive.   

Rice Paddies

Rice Paddies

Communities in rural villages still struggle to make ends meet and do the best they can with very few resources.   

Backyard garden

Backyard garden

Kids in a rural village...

Kids in a rural village…

Education and health care in these rural communities is basic at best. I met some community health workers who were the first and generally last point of call for one small community. They had a rudimentary set of skills and could diagnose and attend to many standard health problems, with anything more complicated needing to be referred to the district level (and then people faced the challenge of getting there…). But, at least they were there. 

The highlight of my trip was definitely visiting Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. China’s beautiful giant pandas are critically endangered.  There are less than 1600 left in the wild, largely due to loss of habitat and other human activities.

Breathtaking...

Breathtaking…

While it still does happen with remarkable frequency in the wild, giant panda breeding is incredibly difficult. Female pandas ovulate only once a year and they are choosy when it comes to mates. Since pandas are solitary creatures, for a successful pregnancy female pandas need to find a male that they deem worthy during the few days of the year that they are fertile.

A few of the younger pandas at Chengdu Research Base

A few of the younger pandas at Chengdu Research Base

Zoo breeding is rarely a good option for preserving endangered species because the object is rarely to release animals back to their natural habitat and ensure that they thrive there. However, the purpose of Chengdu Research Base is exactly that: preservation of the species in their natural environment. And they have been very successful in figuring out how to do just that. 

Love red pandas!

Love red pandas!

They also treat and re-release sick and injured pandas and work to preserve red pandas, which I adore. 

So today’s recipe is my take on spicy Sichuan eggplant.  

Spicy Sichuan Eggplant

Spicy Sichuan Eggplant

If you’ve been to any Chinese restaurant anywhere, this dish will be no stranger to you.  It traditionally comes laden with ground pork, although many of us vegans will be familiar with the meat-free version.  

A spicy sichuan eggplant still life..

A spicy sichuan eggplant still life..

My version riffs off the traditional: I added Beyond Meat “Beefy” beef crumbles as a sub for the pork, added kale for some greens and lightened it up a lot (a typical serving of eggplant in garlic sauce at a Chinese restaurant can easily run 1000 calories). 

A little bit of spice...

A little bit of spice…

Spicy Sichuan Eggplant
Serves 2
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Total Time
40 min
Total Time
40 min
Ingredients
  1. 6 cloves garlic
  2. 1 tsp ginger, grated
  3. 1-2 hot chili peppers (adjust to taste)
  4. 1 scallion
  5. 2 large Chinese eggplant (about four cups, chopped)
  6. 1/2 cup Beyond Meat "beefy" beef-free crumbles (or other vegan ground beef alternative)
  7. 2 cups kale, chopped
  8. 1-2 tbsps tamari (adjust to taste)
  9. 1/2 cup veg broth or water
  10. 1 tbsp rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar
  11. 1/2 tbsp coconut palm sugar
  12. 1/2 tbsp arrowroot powder
  13. Sesame seeds for garnishing
  14. Aroma-free coconut oil, or other vegetable oil, for cooking
Instructions
  1. Chop eggplant into 1-inch pieces.
  2. Place in a bowl, cover with a little salt to soften and draw out some of the bitterness, and set aside for 20 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, prepare your other ingredients.
  4. Chop garlic cloves into small pieces, or mince them.
  5. Dice chili peppers.
  6. Grate ginger.
  7. Chop the white parts of your scallion into 1-inch pieces and thinly slice the light green pieces for garnishing.
  8. Prepare your sauce by combining tamari, veg broth or water, vinegar, coconut palm sugar, and arrowroot. Whisk to mix all ingredients together well and set aside.
  9. Wipe any excess salt from eggplant.
  10. Heat pan on medium-high and when hot add a little coconut oil and eggplant. Sauté until the eggplant browns and becomes soft.
  11. Remove eggplant from pan and set aside.
  12. Add a tiny more coconut oil and sauté your ginger, garlic, peppers and 1-inch pieces of scallion until the scallions soften.
  13. Return the eggplant to the pan.
  14. Add the sauce. It should come to a boil and thicken almost immediately.
  15. Add the kale, give it a stir, and turn off the heat.
  16. Dish into two plates, garnish with remaining scallions and sesame seeds.
  17. Serve with rice.
Vegan Sweet and Simple http://vegansweetandsimple.com/
You can play around here with saltiness and the spiciness. I like a bit of heat, but if you don’t back off on the chilies.  When making the sauce taste it with 1 tbsp of tamari, before adding more and adjust as needed to get the level of saltiness you like. Remember the eggplant has been salted. You can also add more tamari towards the end if you think it needs it! 

Spicy Sichuan Eggplant 1

Yum!

 And before we leave China, here’s a moment of zen. 

So peaceful

So peaceful

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for the next stop on our culinary tour of the world! 

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8 Comments

  1. Oooh this looks amazing! I just came back from Shanghai and know this feeling of not having any idea what you’re eating (even when you know it’s a vegetable or something 😉 ). I’m so excited for the other recipes because I first wanted to do the same thing but then I fell in love with korean food.

    • Thanks so much! It was disorienting – at a certain point I just decided I had to try to enjoy it!

      I love Korean food too… In fact, I may just have something lined up for this round-the-world tour. Will definitely check out your blog!

  2. I am SO making that dish! What a great experience it seems you had

    • It was pretty amazing. Let me know how you like it!

  3. Very cool! Great info and tour of China. I love your first-hand experience. Great looking dish, too!

    Zsu @ Zsu’s Vegan Pantry

    • Thanks so much Zsu!

  4. Wow, your job sounds so interesting! I would love to visit China one day, I’ve been very unsure how to feel about the giant panda breeding programme, on one hand I’m opposed to it as I’m opposed to all breading of animals but on the other hand, as you said, they’re critically endangered and successfully being released into their natural habitat not into captivity. It’s interesting to read another vegans opinion for sure, hopefully I’ll decide 100% before I get to visit China!!

    • It’s a tough one… And to be honest, I’m still of two minds. But ultimately, if it can help preserve this species, I think I’m for it.

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