Sichuan-style fried eggplant, firm yet creamy and bursting with flavor, is truly exquisite, but cooking it can be a challenge—eggplant's porous flesh soaks up oil like a sponge and can quickly go from silky to sodden. So we asked Danny Bowien, chef-owner of the Mission Chinese Food restaurants in New York and San Francisco, whose fried Japanese eggplant is exemplary, to share his technique. Here's what we learned:
1. First, after quartering the eggplant, score a crosshatch pattern on the skin or the flesh side. This creates more surface area for faster cooking, so the oil doesn't have time to seep into the vegetable.
2. Next, soak the eggplant in ice-cold water: The chill shocks the surface of the vegetable and fills tiny air pockets between the cells, preventing the oil from entering them. After a five-minute bath, pat the eggplant completely dry with a paper towel so the hot oil doesn't spatter during frying.
3. Finally, make sure that your frying oil is at least 350 degrees—at that high temperature, the eggplant will cook without absorbing oil. Deep-fry it for about two to three minutes, just until the cut side is soft and golden and the skin side is slightly blistered. Briefly soak the slices in a bowl of just-boiled water to rinse off any excess oil. Once drained and completely dried, it can be simmered in sauce, which it will readily absorb, yielding eggplant that is rich in flavor, not in oil.