I have been trying to diet. Really I have. But after one week, the only thing I have managed to lose is my sense of humour. It might be so that 25 is the new 35, but my face didn’t get the memo and neither did my body. To be fair, I was warned about this by those older and wiser than me: When you hit 35, things will go a bit pear shaped. Or, more accurately, apple shaped. The answer to “Where did my twenties go?” is indeed “Straight to your muffin top, dearie”. But I didn’t really believe them. How do you go from one shape to the next overnight? And yet it seems like that is exactly what happened. One minute I was worrying about how best to hide my saddle bags and the next thing I knew I had a fanny pack I had to camouflage. Of course it doesn’t help that I have a few things conspiring against me: Firstly, there is limited height into which I can fit any excess weight. Secondly, I have bad knees and a bad back which means many exercises are verboten. (I am possibly the only person in the history of the world who, as a little girl, had to face the humility of failing grade 1 ballet because my teacher, Miss Hazel, didn’t think my legs could handle moving to grade 2 yet. I don’t think “loser” adequately conveys the extent to which you are a sporting failure if you can’t pass first grade ballet!) And lastly – and here is the clincher, possibly exacerbating all of the above – I don’t like veggies. At least, not the type of veggies that are good for you in any way. Caramelised in butter and sugar like the Afrikaners like to do them? Sure! Drenched in a creamy, cheesy sauce? Sure! Steamed and healthy? Not so much. So it came as quite a surprise to me when I thoroughly enjoyed a plate of braised aubergines on a trip to Zhujiajiao recently. Granted, in one dish there is probably more sugar than in a Twinkie and more salt than in John McEnroe’s headband, but at least it’s a vegetable and it’s low in fat. The problem with eating anything in China worth writing about though, is that the recipe of said dish has inevitably been passed down from generation to generation and is a secret guarded more closely than the identity of the Stig. Of course that means that I simply have to wait for a disgruntled ex-employee to spill the beans in an otherwise boring book, or I could consult the world’s greatest oracle. So to Google we go! This recipe has been adapted from www.seriouseats.com. Bland veggies like aubergine and courgettes work well to absorb the flavoursome sauce, but it would work just as well with peppers and onions.
Sichuan Style Braised Eggplant
1/4 cup Shaoxing rice wine (I felt a bit lost in front of the rows and rows of rice wine in the shop, so eventually settled for the prettiest bottle, which turned out to be green plum wine. Oops. If you can’t get your hands on Shaoxing wine, you can use Japanese sake or dry sherry or even dry white wine. When using the latter, add a little more sugar during the cooking process.
1 heaped tablespoon of Sichuan fermented chilli-bean paste (It’s a lot yummier than it sounds! If you can’t get your hands on it, use equal parts sweet chilli sauce and hoisin sauce and reduce the sugar by half a teaspoon)
3/4 cup chicken stock (or substitute with mushroom or veggie stock)
2 tablespoons dark mushroom soy sauce (I love the almost cloying richness of mushroom soy sauce, but you can substitute with 3 tablespoons of regular soy sauce)
2 tablespoons of Zhenjian aromatic vinegar (substitute with equal parts Balsamic and white wine vinegar)
2 tablespoons of sugar
2 tablespoons of ginger, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 spring onions, sliced and whites and greens kept seperate
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1) Slice the veggies into battons, roughly 2 x 2 x 6cm’s. Steam the pieces in a bamboo steamer (or pot) until tender, about 15 minutes.
2) Combine the Shaoxing wine and flour in a medium bowl and whisk. Add the stock, bean paste, soy sauce, vinegar, and sugar and whisk to combine. Combine ginger, garlic, spring onion whites, and chilies in a small bowl.
3) Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat. Add the ginger mixture and stir fry until aromatic. (At this point I like to switch the heat off for a minute and just sniff the heavenly aroma of garlic and ginger cooking together. But I can be a bit weird, so don’t feel you need to do this.) Add eggplant and toss to combine. Add sauce mixture and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. Stir in the spring onions, and serve immediately. Serve with fluffy rice to soak up all the sauce.