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Recipe #182: Braised Chinese Eggplant in a Spicy-Sweet Garlic Sauce

Posted Oct 17 2010 4:03pm

We love to go to this fabulous Chinese restaurant in downtown DC called City Lights of China . (The original restaurant 's in Dupont Circle, but they've since opened up a newer location in Bethesda as well.) This restaurant's a favorite of both friends and family alike, and we've had many a celebration there. Although the DC location doesn't look like much from its exterior, don't let appearances deceive you. It's consistently written up by restaurant critics and every-day diners alike as one of the best & also most reasonably-priced Chinese restaurants in the DC area. So, if you live in (or plan to visit) the Greater Washington DC area and haven't yet had the pleasure of eating at this little hidden gem of a dining establishment (i.e., it's literally "hidden" from street level, & one might walk by & not even see it, save the bright blue awning above the walk-down staircase ;) ), I highly recommend it! Pretty much every dish we've ever ordered there is fabulous, and honestly, you really can't go wrong no matter what you choose. Over the many years of our patronage there, we've probably sampled the breadth and depth of the entire menu. :)

Anyhow,  City Lights  makes this wonderful Szechuan-style dish consisting of sautéed Chinese eggplant , garlic, basil, & this amazingly tasty, sticky, sweet, & spicy sauce. The eggplants carmelize during the cooking process and all of the flavors meld together to give the diner an eating experience of absolute perfection. :)

It's particularly wonderful on a bed of steamed rice, and usually ends up being just one of the many dishes we order when we go there to dine as a group. We usually eat it as a side dish, although you could certainly eat it as a main course if you added a protein source -- like tofu or chicken, etc. -- to it.

Now, of course, after experiencing such culinary excellence firsthand, I was inspired to recreate such heavenly perfection in my own kitchen. :) Making restaurant-quality Chinese food in one's own home, especially a recipe that exactly mirrors the dish one has just eaten in a restaurant, can actually be quite challenging. However, as they say, where there's a will, there's a way. :) And if at first you don't succeed, then try, try again. :) After all, practice does make perfect, and all the rest of those tired-but-true clichés. ;)

I have to say that this version comes fairly close to the original, as I remember it, but maybe I should stop by  City Lights  sometime soon & refresh my memory, just to make sure. ;)

I'm dedicating this recipe to the various family & friends who've dined with us at  City Lights  on many an occasion, and also happen to love this place as much as we do. :) Since take-out or delivery from this restaurant isn't a viable option for many of them (for various reasons), they'll now be able to recreate & enjoy one of their favorite dishes at home. :-D And now, so will everyone else who ever wanted to try making a recipe like this, but didn't know where to find an authentic, restaurant-quality recipe, that is, until now. :)


Oops, I forgot to add the sesame seeds  for the sake of the recipe photo, but you get the general idea. :)

Braised Chinese Eggplant in a Spicy-Sweet Garlic Sauce

2 Tbsp. sesame seed oil
2 Tbsp. fresh garlic, peeled & finely minced (about 4 large cloves)
1 Tbsp. fresh ginger, peeled & finely minced (about 1" piece)
1/4 c. whole scallions, sliced into thin rounds (about 2 large scallions)
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 Tbsp. dry sherry
1 Tbsp. Chinese red rice wine vinegar (or if unavailable, can substitute white rice wine vinegar)
1 long/large (or 2 medium) Chinese eggplant, sliced lengthwise into 1/4" x 3" strips (about 11-12 oz.)
1/2 c. water
1/4 tsp. cornstarch
1/4 c. hoisin sauce
1 tsp. crushed red chili pepper flakes (or 1/2 Tbsp.  chili garlic sauce ), or to taste1/8 tsp. ground black pepper1/8 tsp. salt, or to taste1/3 c. Thai sweet basil (a.k.a.  Asian basil ), tightly packed2 tsp. sesame seeds

Directions: In a large wok, sauté garlic, ginger, & scallions in sesame seed oil for 2 minutes on medium-high heat. Next, add soy sauce, sherry, & (red) rice wine vinegar to deglaze, stirring on occasion. While sauce is reducing, stir in eggplant slices and cook until light golden brown. Stir often, so as not to let the eggplant burn or stick to the bottom of the pan. Quickly combine cold water & cornstarch in a small bowl & then pour into the wok. Stir in hoisin sauce and season with red chili pepper flakes (or chili garlic sauce), black pepper, & salt, and cook until sauce mixture is thick & viscous. (If necessary, add more water while eggplant & sauce mixture are cooking). Add in the basil during the last minute of cooking. Remove from heat & sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve on a bed of jasmine or sticky rice.

Yield: Serves 2 as a side dish, or 1 as a main course.

Chef's Notes: It's really important to do the above steps in rapid succession, as the ingredients are cooked on high heat but should never be allowed to burn or stick to the pan. It's important to be vigilant & aware during all phrases of the cooking process, particularly after the eggplant is added. Pay close attention to the texture of the eggplant, which will be ready when it's become soft and carmelized. Also, be sure to keep close tabs on the amount of liquid left in the pan. The sauce shouldn't be watery, but neither should it solidify in the pan. ;) Aim for a happy medium: The goal is to produce a thick & flavorful sauce that flows and yet, still sticks to the eggplant. Ahhhh, sweet & spicy perfection. :)

Variations: If serving as an entrée, simply add tofu &/or chicken. Or, to add more vegetables, try green or red bell peppers &/or mushrooms. Any of these choices would complement this dish quite nicely. Please keep in mind that, since the spicy-sweet garlic sauce in this recipe is rather bold and spicy, any other ingredients you plan to add should be basic and mild. :) The sauce is meant to take center stage, and come to think of it, could also be used in other dishes as well. You could try it over steamed broccoli or green beans, or with sautéed/steamed tofu, chicken, or beef.

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