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Jun 18, 2013 12:56 PM

Please Solve This Chinese Food Mystery

Hello hounds.

Many moons ago in New Haven I got hooked on an otherwise blah generic Chinese restaurant that had a few knock-em-dead dishes. One of those dishes was eggplant and basil in black bean sauce. It was spectacular.

I've eaten far and wide in the Chinese food scene of Boston & its suburbs. I prefer places that do Sichuan-inflected cuisine, and because of proximity usually end up at joints like Zoes, Mary Chung, Qingdao Garden, etc.

Here's the mystery. I've never seen eggplant in black bean sauce on a menu (even in Chinatown), and when I ask the kitchen to make it for me, I get some variation on the following: "Ooooh. Really? You want that? Ooookaaay... you think that tastes good?" They always make it, and most of the time it's very tasty. I usually get a fly-by from the waitstaff part way through the meal to check and see if I really like it, or it I am a dolt. Or maybe both.

So: what Chinese food rules am I violating? Is it regional? Is it that I'm asking for this at the wrong joints? Is it like great-tastes-that-should-never-go-together-in-polite-society? What's the taboo I'm walking smack into? The response is so pervasive that I'd at least like to know how to explain away my insanity to the nice servers.

Bonus question: has anyone seen this on a menu in Boston? Maybe it's some weirdo New Haven thing.

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  1. Was it anything like this? If so, perhaps we just lack a chef with roots in the right part of China.

    2 Replies
    1. re: PinchOfSalt

      The eggplant & garlic at Jojo Taipei is pretty excellent.

      1. re: Gabatta

        I was thinking of the Jo Jo Taipei eggplant and basil as well. That is my favorite dish! Not sure if they use black beans in the dish though.

    2. Is that something different than, say, Home-style Eggplant with Basil at Taiwan Cafe or Taiwan Style Eggplant at Dumpling Cafe or similarly named dishes at other Taiwanese restaurants? It's in a dark sauce but I don't know if it's a black bean sauce. It's one of my favorite dishes.

      2 Replies
      1. re: markin617

        markin617 -- are the dishes you're talking about on the sweeter side? I see a lot of eggplant in "garlic sauce" with basil, but there's something about the black beans that offer a fermented funkiness that balances the richness of the eggplant. I haven't kept an eye on the Taiwanese versions, but now I certainly will.

        PinchOfSalt & Gabetta -- thanks for the leads, I'll check them out!

        1. re: litchick

          Yes, they are a little sweet. I don't find them overly so.

      2. I am guessing that Chinese chefs in America, particularly if they are in a small place by themselves and not being watched by a team of cohorts, are just like any other chefs- they create their own dishes. no proofs here, just guessing.

        1. Alright, I'm Chinese, so I've investigated this a little bit for you. First I googled 豆豉茄子, which means black bean sauce eggplant, and that yielded 779,000 results. There certainly are recipes for it, so it's not completely unheard of. However, when I googled 鱼香茄子 aka garlic sauce eggplant, there were 2,350,000 results, indicating that the garlic sauce variant is way more popular, maybe overshadowing the black bean sauce variant. Then I dug deeper and looked at all the recipes for the two dishes. Guess what? The garlic sauce version is almost identical to the black bean version, but instead of black bean sauce it uses 豆瓣酱 (Doubanjiang) which is a sauce made out of beans and is red. So what I'm trying to say is Black Bean Eggplant is one ingredient away from Garlic sauce eggplant, but maybe the flavor of the doubanjiang goes better with eggplants than black bean sauce, hence garlic sauce eggplant is more popular.

          2 Replies
          1. re: divinebaboon

            I found recipes by searching for 豆豉 and 九層塔. Mostly Taiwanese sites, of course, but using different names for basil will probably get hits from other regions, too. Eggplant and basil is not a common combination for me (in Chinese cooking), but I would definitely try it.

            1. Shangri-La in Belmont does some of the best eggplant dishes I've ever eaten in my life. The version that is spicy with pork in particular. They also have numerous dishes with basil... bet they'd do this for ya.


              1 Reply
              1. re: StriperGuy

                Just to elaborate a bit further, somehow in the recesses of my memory I remember that one of their eggplant dishes actually has basil (though not necessarily black beans) in it.