Spicy Eggplant and some questions of lack.

Hong Kong claims a cosmopolitan food culture. Indeed, many Hong Konger‘s claim that not only can you try a new food culture in Hong Kong, but you can get a better version. It is a point of pride. What is surprising to me, then, is the fact that while you can easily access other cuisines and often in artfully decorated jars or in ready made portions in the refrigerated section of the upmarket stores, it is difficult to find Chinese food that is similarly packaged. This is not because food gifting is not a big deal here, giving food baskets is huge at certain times of the year. Maybe this lack has something to do with the idea of traditional Chinese foods as being low culture? Certainly in the search for identity, Hong Kongers are seemingly more comfortable with the outside other than with the national other that is the heterogeneity of China. Maybe this lack is because there is not the combination of River Cottage type middle-class aspiration and land available for growing in Hong Kong, which would result in the value-added, market-garden retail espoused by the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall? Although a noticeable anomaly for someone who comes most recently from the UK, maybe this is not a lack at all? There might be an opportunity here, but on the other hand, the lack of this value-added type retail is perhaps what keeps the wet markets affordable.

One of my favorite Chinese dishes is what is roughly translated as Spicy Eggplant (Aubergine). It is from Sichuan province or Hunan province, depending on who you ask. Although it has chilies in it, it isn’t too hot. I like to eat it mushed onto french bread, which is not really how it is eaten normally. It is also good on Cornbread, which is a bit more authentic. However you eat it, this is a great way to use up those eggplants/aubergines. It also uses an alternative cooking method compared to western food culture as the eggplants are steamed not fried, so the dish is a bit less oily than, for example, Ratatouille. The dish has a consistency similar to that of Baba Ganoush, but has a bit of a kick to it because of the chili bean sauce, Toban Dijan, that is used.

Toban Dijan sauce, sometimes it is called Toban Jiang or Toban Djan. This sauce is the dope. I have used it in so many different things. I buy the version made under the Lee Kum Kee brand. I have seen it for sale in both the US and the UK. I don’t choose this brand because it is more authentic or tastes the best. I choose it because it is usually all that I can find. I am told that the made-at-home sauce is so much better, but there are not stores or market stalls here in Hong Kong that sell a home-style version of the sauce, either with or without a gingham fabric circle on the lid. At least not that I have found.

To make Spicy Eggplant you need:

  • 3 eggplants (the long, thin Asian ones work better, but the round are ok,too)
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 3 T lt soy sauce
  • 1T Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1T roasted sesame oil
  • 2t rice vinegar
  • 1t sugar
  • 1 spring onion chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1-3 t Toban Dijan sauce (this is key—If you don’t like heat use just one teaspoon. I tend to use a bit more because it is just so good).


Peel the eggplants and cut into strips or cubes. Toss with the salt and then set in a sieve over a bowl for about an hour. You can actually skip this step but you will end up a bit “gas-y”. If you do skip it make sure that whomever you sleep with also eats it and leave the window open.

Put the cubes or strips of eggplant into a steamer basket over boiling water and cook for 20 minutes, or until tender and you can mush it with a fork. Combine the remaining ingredients in a separate bowl using a fork, whisk or pair of chop sticks. Put the steamed eggplant in a serving dish and mix the sauce in. The eggplant will lose its shape, but that is ok.

Serve immediately, or have it later. Either works. If you want to get decorative you can put some sesame seeds on the top, but this isn’t needed. Typically this dish is eaten as a vegetable side, but I find it also makes a great party dip. These quantities should serve about 6, but in my house it has been known to serve just 1.


If you would like to know more about local Hong Kong attitudes toward Chinese food as low culture, Sidney Cheung, of Chinese University has written this paper: Cheung, S. 2005. “Consuming ‘Low’ Cuisine after Hong Kong’s Handover: Village Banquets and Private Kitchens.” Asian Studies Review (Special Issue on Edgy Things: Negotiating Borders and Identities through Asian Material Culture) 29(3): 259-273.

Akbar Abbas has written about the Hong Kong and Cosmopolitanism. You can find a link to this work here.

The Green Patch has a nice description of mico-gardening in Hong Kong available here. Journey to Forever has provided a photograph of a graphic that indicates what to sow when in Hong Kong here. It looks like the winter months are the best for Eggplants/Aubergines.

How to reference this post

Blake, M (2013) . Spicy Eggplant and the absence of Chinese value-added foods. Geofoodie.org https://geofoodie.org/2013/04/15/spicy-eggplant/15 April 2013 (Accessed: insert date accessed here)

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