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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.

    http://www.thebittenword.com/thebitte...

    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.

              http://www.shangrilachinese.com/dinne...

              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.

              2. I grew up with Yu Xiang Eggplant (鱼香茄子) which is a Cantonese dish. Some waiters may explain to you that salted fish is used for this dish but I doubt that. I had Black Bean Eggplant with basil only at the restaurants run by Taiwanese.
                Since black bean is a very common ingredient in Cantonese cuisine, most kitchens can make it for you even though I don't know where they find the basil which is not a frequently used ingredient.
                I think Black Bean Eggplant with basil is a great combination which deviates from the long-established and well-accepted Yu Xiang Eggplant. I guess that is the reasons that the waitstaff are curious about its taste.

                8 Replies
                1. re: sheila

                  While I cannot claim any Chinese roots, it is my understanding that one of the English translations for "Yu Xiang" is fish flavor or some similar phrase. The explanation that I remember is that the same flavorings are used when cooking fish. In any case, black beans rate very highly in my own Chinese food experiences, as does anything Yu Xiang, so the combination intrigues. Please do post if you find a restaurant that serves this.

                  More generally, the absence of this dish from menus may be due to market forces. Anyone who runs a Chinese restaurant knows that there are certain dishes you have to have on the menu or some number of customers will be unhappy. It's a matter of meeting customer expectations. Once you do the must-haves, you probably want dishes that at least significantly different (not close variations) or, better, help define what makes your restaurant special. Maybe the problem is the yu xiang eggplant (a definite must-have).

                  1. re: PinchOfSalt

                    Yu Xiang eggplant is one of my favorite things, but probably only because I got to know it before I got to know eggplant with basil, which I might like even more.

                    Mary Chung has Yu Xiang everything, including eggplant, and I know it's on the menu at Royal Palace 2 in Chinatown. Also Wang's in Somerville and Qingdao in Cambridge. I used to think of it as common, but maybe it never really was and I was just focused on the few places that served it.

                    Mary Chung lists Chinese Eggplant with Fresh Basil in three options: Yu hsiang, red oil, or hung shao style

                    1. re: PinchOfSalt

                      According to Barbara Tropp, Yú Xiāng Ròu (渝湘肉) - does not mean "fish flavored pork," which has been widely used on many, if not every translation in menus today. 渝 Yú is an ancient term for the Jialing River in Sichuan and a current abbreviation for the city of Chongqing, as well as for Sichuan itself.

                      湘 Xiāng refers to the Xiang River in Hunan and today has come to also mean Hunan. So the real name of this dish should be "Sichuan-Hunan Pork" - mixing "the piquant flavors for which Sichuan and Hunan are best known" according to Tropp.

                      Because Chinese is full of so many homophones, it is possible semi-literate Chinese restaurant workers rendered 渝湘 Yú Xiāng as 魚香 Yú Xiāng, hence "fish fragrant." Nothing fishy about that!

                      1. re: scoopG

                        I *think* I read that it isn't really about the food tasting like fish but rather the technique is like that for cooking some fish. Fuschia Dunlop has several recipes referencing the "fish fragrant", and that's what I recall...

                        1. re: Gio

                          I'll have to dig through my Dunlop to see. I think Tropp thought the term then might have migrated back to China from here.

                          1. re: scoopG

                            Dunlop does refer to fish fragrant.

                        2. re: scoopG

                          Now THAT's interesting.

                          Is the usage on menus of the transliteration of 魚香 common outside Boston? In DC, where I frequently dine, it's never called "yu shiang," instead it's translated as "with garlic sauce" even though the Chinese is always 魚香.

                          1. re: KWagle

                            Yes, I believe so. It may be that restaurant staff became tired of trying to explain what the heck fish fragrant was and wasn't that they stopped using the English term!

                    2. Sounds like they have it here http://www.kingandinyack.com/dinner_m...
                      51. PAD MA KURR--Sautéed eggplant and basil in black bean sauce, but you will have to go to NY!

                      1. Dear everyone, I bow down to your collective wisdom.

                        Now I can tell Mr.Lit to suck up his embarrassment when I special order this like a boss.

                        ;)

                        1. Formosa Taipei in Lexington does a fantastic three cup eggplant that sounds very much like what you are describing. I don't think there are any black beans in it, but the sweet basil taste is definitely there.

                          1. slightly off topic but I just had a KILLER sweet and sour chicken and eggplant at Taiwan café- not at all the standard sweet and sour treatment, a sweet red sauce with chili and sweet peppers slivered chicken and Chinese eggplant pieces. kinda trashy but delicious. I want it right now. WANT.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: rich patina

                              not an exact match but for eggplant lovers, Mulan does an excellent one and Shanghai Gate's sizzling eggplant with pork is one of my favorite dishes ever (only there as it must be eaten right away and not taken out)