Why It Works
- Soaking eggplants in a vinegar bath for just 10 minutes helps prevent them from turning brown during cooking, while flavoring them gently with a bit of bright acidity.
- Steaming (or microwaving) the eggplants both ensures a gentle cooking method that preserves its bright colors.
- The dressing takes on a spicy twist with the addition of chili oil to an all-purpose vinaigrette base.
Eggplant is one of the most popular vegetables used in cold Chinese dishes known as liangcai (涼菜). Its gentle sweetness and soft texture works very well with a variety of flavors, from garlic and bright herbs to nutty sesame pastes. This version presents the eggplant with a dressing based on my “all-purpose” Chinese-style vinaigrette, but given a spicy flavor with the addition of some chili oil. I also add minced garlic and scallion greens for brightness and herbaceousness.
The basic all-purpose vinaigrette is something I came up with after wondering if it might be possible to develop a Chinese-vinaigrette rule-of-thumb similar to the Western 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar in dressings. After studying many cold dish recipes, I landed on a ratio of 3:3:1:1 by volume of soy sauce to aromatic oil to vinegar to sugar, respectively. This isn’t an absolute rule you’ll encounter in all of Chinese cooking, but it’s a practical framework for developing dressings that are versatile and balanced. It’s also a great jumping-off point for variations, such as my addition of chili oil here in place of part of the aromatic oil in my basic vinaigrette recipe.
The best eggplants for this salad are the long, narrow Chinese eggplants. Find ones that are firm, with bright, darker purple on the exterior and brilliantly white inside. Because Chinese eggplant often has fewer seeds than globe eggplant, it tends to be sweeter. Chinese eggplant is also more resistant to dissolving into mush when cooked thoroughly, and it retains a pleasantly stringy texture. To protect its purple color, the eggplant is soaked briefly in white vinegar, which causes the anthocyanin in the skin to appear more vibrant.
I like serving this dish on the side of a family-style meal, especially if the main courses are heavier and warm. Though this salad is served cold, it doesn’t shy away from layers of flavor and can stand on its own when eaten with flavorful stir-fries and braised meats. The dressing is also delicious over white rice.