Carefree Basil Eggplant 九層塔茄子 and Beyond

By Charleen - August 13, 2020

Basil Eggplant is the dish that changed my entire view of this purple fruit, also known as aubergine or brinjal. Eggplant has become one of my family's favorite dishes to enjoy in restaurants and to cook at home. Over the years, I have developed the easiest, most forgiving method for cooking chunks of eggplant until they are browned and softened, while retaining brilliant purple highlights. I call it wok-roasting. Wok-roasted eggplant can be gobbled up on its own, or serve as an easy starting point for a multitude of international dishes.

Wok-roasted Basil Eggplant
Basil Eggplant with Szechuan-spiced ground pork 

Jump to the Love2Chow recipe.

Discovering Eggplant in Restaurants

I had never liked eggplant growing up. On a trip back home as an adult, my family congregated at the Peking Restaurant 北京小館 in Westminster, CA. Specializing in Northern Chinese cuisine, this small restaurant has the very best pot-sticker 鍋貼 guō tiē dumplings that I have had in restaurants across the US and Canada. We also love the boiled pork and Chinese leek (garlic chive) dumplings, and would sometimes buy bags of their frozen dumplings to enjoy at home. 
The biggest and best potsticker dumplings 鍋貼 anywhere! This is only a partial order as they start disappearing as soon as the plate of 10 arrives. Peking Restaurant, Westminster, CA

Boiled pork-chive dumplings. On the menu as "Fifteen Pieces Chiao Tze, Boiled Dumpling", currently $10.95 at Peking Restaurant, Westminster, CA

Four years later, the kids are a bit more civilized and I was able get in a photo of "Ten Pieces Kuo Tieh Pan-fried dumplings" currently $10.95 at Peking Restaurant, Westminster, CA

My mom always likes to order a vegetable dish as we gorge on dumplings, scallion pancakes and noodles (Northern Chinese restaurants are the places to go for wheat-based Chinese foods). On this occasion, she picked a dish written in Chinese characters on their Specials Board - 九層塔茄子, which she had translated literally to "9-story-pagoda-eggplant."
九層塔茄子 - basil eggplant with pork strips from Peking Restaurant, Westminster, CA

The minute I took a bite, I was blown away by how delicious eggplant could be. Lined on one side in brilliant purple, the meltingly soft bars of eggplant delivered delicious soy sauce-sesame oil flavors to my mouth with something extra special that I could not define. Needless to say, I sought out this dish along with the potstickers on nearly every trip back to visit my mom.

This discovery in that little strip mall restaurant, serving up the same great foods we have enjoyed now for over 40 years, triggered a culinary journey of discovery. Like me, my husband and kids were not particularly thrilled by eggplant. But they loved the elongated roasted eggplants that we tried in Rome. This Italian eggplant resembled the Asian eggplant much more closely than the typical globose western eggplant. It was lightly breaded, simply seasoned and did not require loads of stretchy melted cheese or robust red sauce to shine.
Antipasta Romanesque at Ar Galetto Restaurant in Piazza Farnese, Rome, Italy.

On that same trip, we ventured into a few restaurants with menus all in Italian, ordered some dishes a bit randomly and greatly enjoyed Rigotoni Ricotta e Melanzane, a pasta dish with tomatoes, creamy ricotta and silky bits of eggplant.

Following our experiences with 9-story-pagoda-eggplant in California and those two eggplant dishes in Italy, I rushed to welcome baba ganoush, garlic eggplant, yu hsiang (fish-fragrant, referring to the seasonings used for Szechuan fish dishes) eggplant, eggplant parmesan, eggplant and cubed fish braised in black bean sauce, eggplant chutneys, Uno's Farmer's Market vegetarian deep dish pizza with roasted eggplant, and eggplant-laden Thai green curries into my diet.
Sultan's Delight: tamarind-glazed beef and smokey eggplant puree at Oleana in Cambridge, MA
Thai Green Curry with eggplant from Red Orchid in Pittsburgh, PA
Yu Hsiang Eggplant at New Shanghai Restaurant in Boston, MA
Bantijan Bil Laban: crispy eggplant, roasted garlic yogurt, pistachios, barberries, mint, cardamom at Zaytinya Restaurant in Washington, D.C.
Casserole with Braised Eggplant and Diced Fish in Black Bean Sauce at Hunan Bar in Pittsburgh, PA
Melanzane alla Parmigiana, Princess Cruise somewhere in Glacier Bay, Alaska.

I have since learned that one of the Chinese names for basil is 九層塔 Jiǔcéngtǎ, although it also has other less poetic names. So that amazing dish that opened my eyes and mind to the delights of eggplant was simply Basil Eggplant - although I do still feel that there were nine layers of amazing flavors.

My next encounter with Basil Eggplant was at a Taiwanese restaurant called the Rose Tea Cafe. They have the best Taiwanese Chunk Chicken, also known as Three Cup Chicken - which features basil, sweet roasted whole garlic cloves and dried red chilies served sizzling in a clay pot. A fantastic rendition of Eggplant with Basil, beloved by omnivores and vegetarians alike, was gobbled up before I get in a photo. My kids loved it so much that I decided I needed to learn how to make Basil Eggplant.
Taiwanese Chunk Chicken at Rose Tea Cafe, Pittsburgh, PA

Making Basil Eggplant at Home

Although we now love all types of eggplant, the delicious, tender Asian eggplant is by far my favorite to prepare and eat. These long, skinny eggplants have a tender skin that does not need to be peeled, and a pale, slightly sweet flesh with no more than the tiniest seeds, which does not need to be salted.

Regardless of whether you are roasting, grilling, braising, frying or steaming, you will want to cook the eggplant until it is softened throughout. An undercooked eggplant can be a bit astringent, while soft, caramelized eggplant is rich in flavor.

Love2Chow Wok-Roasted Basil Eggplant                                            2/4/14, modifed 3/31/17, 8/5/20

This is a very forgiving recipe. You want some browning of the eggplant, but it has enough water in it that the pan does not need to be watched too carefully. With thin-skinned Asian eggplants, no blanching, peeling or salting is needed for the easiest, most carefree preparation. When I have company, I pan-roast the eggplant in advance, finishing the dish just before serving by glazing the softened, slightly sweet-charred chunks in the sauce. The dish can also be served at room temperature.


1.5 lb       Asian eggplants

                vegetable oil

Optional: 4-8 oz ground pork topping, cooked in advance and set aside (recipe here)

0.5 Tbs     fish sauce (I prefer Tiparos)

1.5 Tbs     soy sauce

1    Tbs     sherry or Shaoxing rice wine

1/2 Tbs    lime juice

1 tsp          sugar

1 tsp          dark sesame oil

1 tsp          cornstarch

                 Basil (large handful)

Optional: cilantro or scallions

 

Cut three long skinny Asian eggplants (about 1.5 lb total) into chunks. I cut on slant and do a quarter turn before cutting again.  This gives a polyhedral shape that tosses well.


Heat a 14-inch wok or 12-inch skillet on medium heat until a drop of water evaporates in 1-2 sec. Then add about a tablespoon of safflower oil, or enough to thinly cover the cooking area after tilting the pan around.

 

Add eggplant and let it sit undisturbed for 2-3 min to brown (see Tip 1). Stir eggplant in pan ever so often while prepping the sauce, or cutting things up for other dishes, until all sides have become translucent and the chunks are soft to your liking. Turn down heat to just below medium if needed to prevent burning. 


If using a skillet, you may need to toss in 1-2 Tbs of water and steam covered for 2-3 minutes. The eggplant may lose its purple color, but will taste just as good. Finish with the lid off to drive off the water.

 

In small bowl mix 0.5 Tbs Tiparos fish sauce with 1.5 Tbs soy sauce, 1 Tbs sherry, ½ Tbs lime juice, 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp dark sesame oil and 1 tsp cornstarch.  Prepare fresh herbs (Thai basil, cilantro and/or green onion). Use a generous amount – fresh herbs are treated like greens in Asian cooking.

 

When eggplant is done (feel free to taste a piece to see if it has a good texture), you can add the sauce to the hot wok and toss the eggplant until the sauce has thickened to a glaze. Stir in any tofu or cooked pork, if desired, to reheat before adding the sauce.


Or alternatively, turn off the heat and set the eggplant aside. When you are ready to finish the dish, heat the wok (cook or re-heat any optional proteins such as pork, tofu, or fish-shrimp meatballs) and add the eggplant and sauce. Toss until sauce has thickened to a light glaze.


Turn off heat and immediately stir in basil and the optional herbs.


Please enjoy the recipe and share what you think. 


Tips: 
🐾   If your stove or wok burner is more than 15,000 BTU, you will need to stir much more frequently (maybe after 30-60 s). This gives a wonderfully charred sweet soft result much more quickly, and you will need to have the sauce mixed and the herbs chopped before you start cooking the eggplant.
🐾 If doubling or tripling the recipe for a large group, cook each batch of eggplant separately and set aside. Then heat aromatics such as garlic, ginger, chiles, etc.  Add the full amount of multiplied sauce and heat until bubbling vigorously. Add back eggplant and toss to glaze. Turn off heat and toss in fresh herbs before serving.  


🐾 A vegan substitute for fish sauce can be made using dried mushrooms, seaweed, fermented bean curd or miso and soy sauce. Check the recipes tested by Vermilion Roots.


DID YOU TRY THIS RECIPE?

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