Hey, did I mention that I am working on a book? Well I sure am!
It’s a big history of food in China. All of it, from Neolithic to not-so-distant future. In fact, that may be the tagline. I have a draft, so it’s about time to start thinking about taglines.
One thing I am doing in this book is recreating historical recipes. That means using different sources to piece together techniques, and once I have a good understanding of the process, taking it to the kitchen.
Today I made a dish from Zhongkuilu, a 12th century book of recipes. Zhongkuilu deals mostly with food preservation, techniques like brining, fermenting, salting, and sun-drying. Preserving changes the taste, and you cook with that new taste–it’s the difference between pork belly and bacon.
Blessed with some extra eggplant and a heatwave, I decided to start with a recipe for 鵪鶉茄.
What’s that? Quail eggplant? There’s no quail, I think quail just means small.
But enough with the chit chat, here’s the dish:
Chop a fresh eggplant into fine threads, dip in boiling water, dry, and evenly coat with a mixture of salt, bean paste, Sichuan pepper, dill, fennel, licorice, orange peel, almond, and red bean paste. After sun drying and steaming the pieces, store them. When time to eat, soften them in boiling water, and fry in sesame oil.
So what we are doing is very lightly (15 seconds) parboiling the sliced eggplant to cook out the water, then tossing in a mix of seasoned paste, and sunning until completely dry–enough to be able to not go bad in a 12-century kitchen.
I have to say, this worked out pretty well. I was skeptical of slicing it so thin, but even these thin strips took three hours to dry out, under a baking 40 degree sun. The taste is pretty nice. I didn’t add all the spices in the recipe, opting instead for a basic mix of bean paste, Sichuan pepper, and dried orange peel. To my surprise, it was the orange peel that really stood out.
Now what will I do with my dried eggplant? As I was proudly setting up my drying try in a sunny spot, an older woman asked what I was making. When I told her I was drying eggpplant, she immediately shot back with, “oh that’s good with stewed pork!”
Let’s try this again…
So stewed pork it is. But those thin strips wouldn’t hold up for long.
Enter our second attempt at something a little more stew-worthy. For these, I left the peel on, cut in half and scored down the middle. I switched out the paste mixture for a simple baste in soy sauce, salt, and a bit of sugar.
These too a lot more time to dry out–about 7 hours with constant relocationg to keep them in full sun. By the afternoon, I had something very different.
These still aren’t completely hard-as-rock-and-will-last-forever dry, but I think they would hold up for a long time if they were properly stored. I don’t intend to wait that long–first chance I get, these bad boys are getting stewed with pork ribs and fresh corn.
So one thin, one thick. Both go in the stewed pork. The thin one for only ten minutes, the thick held up easily fo two hours.
Each one was nice in its own way. Both were pleasantly chewy, though I’d consider peeling the larger cut eggplant when I try this again. The thin cut had a really luxurious texture, and held the taste of its marinade well. I’d want to try that one as a focal ingredient–just that with some light greens in a vegetable or chicken broth.
Well done, twelfth century!