Three Treasures is one of our favourite Chinese vegetable dishes: we order it regularly at Lucky Star, which is of course our most favourite Chinese restaurant. It’s a simply and homey dish of braised aubergine, potato and bell pepper and a soothingly mild contrast to their many spicy Sichuan options. When Mr Lemur brought home aubergine and pepper last night, and realising I had a bag of potatoes going spare, I wondered if it might be possible to work out how it’s made. (I am not usually a big potato person but I had bought some in an aborted bacalao experiment and, of course, hadn’t figured out what to do with them instead.) A bit of research got me nowhere: I don’t know if the dish is usually called something else, or if Lucky Star just makes a very particular version, but the interwebs had very little guidance to offer me. So, I decided to try and retrofit the dish just based on the flavour.
It’s actually harder to work out simple and delicate flavoured dishes than assertive spice pastes, I realised. If you’re not picking up punchy flavours of star anise or cloves, it’s a bit more of a challenge. I started with a generous amount of garlic, since the dish is definitely garlicky, and added some ginger for good measure. I also added in a little chili bean paste, not so much for the heat but the umami qualities of the fermented soy beans. The dish is usually made with green peppers but I only had a red one. The astringent qualities of green pepper actually work well in this dish but red was nice too. Texture was also an issue: the restaurant dish has perfectly soft potatoes, slightly al dente peppers and melting aubergine. How to get them all correct at once? I decided to wok fry the vegetables individually before braising them fairly briefly at the end, which produced a nice colour on the potatoes, softened up the aubergine, and kept the pepper relatively crisp. It isn’t entirely a low fat way of doing things, but then cooked aubergine is essentially fat held together loosely by vegetable matter, let’s face it. I was actually pretty happy with the results. I’m not sure if my retrofitted version is authentic, but I think it captured the textures and flavours of the dish pretty well. If you’re interested in hearty and vegetarian Asian cooking, I think this is a great winter dish.
- 10-12 small potatoes
- 1 medium European aubergine / eggplant or several smaller Japanese ones
- 1 red or green pepper
- 5 cloves of garlic
- 1 smallish knob ginger
- 1 tsp cornflour / cornstarch
- 3 spring onions / scallions
- 1 tsp chili bean paste
- a good glug soy sauce
- 1/3 – 1/2 cup water
- a sprinkle of sugar
- a pinch of salt
- oil for frying
First cut up all the vegetables. In China they apparently have loads of different words for ways of cutting veggies but English is kind of paltry in that department. What you want with the potatoes and aubergines is to make triangle shapes, kind of like flint heads. It’s easy with a Japanese eggplant – you can just zig zag along with your knife. It’s a bit footery with potatoes as the round bits are rather resistant to the geometry of it, but once you get into the swing of it, it’s not hard. Do the same thing with the aubergines, and pop those in water. (If you have a European aubergine, quarter it lengthwise first.) Chop the pepper into cubes and slice the spring onions thinly. Chop and/or pound the garlic and ginger to a paste.
Heat the wok to a medium heat and add a decent glug of vegetable oil. Fry the potatoes until done, about 15 minutes, turning them frequently so they are light-medium brown all over. Sprinkle some salt on toward the end. Drain on kitchen paper and put aside.
Now do the same with the aubergine, realising of course that you are going to have to add more oil. Cook till they are soft, about 5 minutes and then put them in a separate bowl. With the wok empty again, add a little more oil and stirfry the spring onions, then add the peppers, garlic and ginger. When the garlic no longer smells raw, add in the chili bean paste, mix and then add back in the aubergine and potatoes. Now add soy sauce and a sprinkling of sugar. Mix cornflour in a little water and add it in. Stir and turn down the heat to medium-low.
Now you’re going to want to add a bit more water for the braise, but not too much. I put in dribs and drabs as I wasn’t entirely sure how much more cooking time the aubergine needed, but it ended up no more than 1/2 cup. Braise for about 10 mins, stirring frequently, until all the vegetables are soft and the sauce is thick and glossy. Taste for salt and then serve with rice.