In western restaurants, you know you are getting a steak if you order 'tenderloin with bearnaise sauce'. Chinese restaurants do not name a dish by the ingredients like di san xian as 'brinjals, potato and bell peppers stir-fry'. Intriguing names such as 'Ants Crawl Up The Tree', which really is a mung bean noodles and minced meat dish, can fire up the imagination and make a boring dish otherwise. Some dishes have such descriptive names which you can almost imagine how the dish came about, such as 'Buddha Jumps Over The Wall', which sounds like something a track and field monk should eat but in reality only the king can afford. And if your host ever suggests a dinner of 'Phoenix and Dragon', please take my advice and decline dinner. One of my friends was invited to such a dinner when he visited his ancestral village in China in the days before any of us would venture into China. When the waiter lifted the huge silver lid, a chicken (the phoenix) rested in the middle of the large platter, with a snake (the dragon) curled around it. He ate it. I would prefer to drop dead. I think it was stories such as these that put me off from visiting China until 1999.
Di san xian literally means 'Earth three fresh' which really means three fresh things/veg from the earth, if you juggle those words a little. Di san xian is a common everyday dish in China but not in Malaysia. Di san xian originated from northern China, which explains the inclusion of potatoes which are seldom used as a stir-fry item in Southern Chinese cooking. I like to use young potatoes for this dish because they aren't as floury as the old potatoes. If you can't find brinjals, you can substitute with very young eggplants. Taiwan brinjals are best because they are thin-skinned, seedless and always tender.
I've eaten different versions of di san xian and since I prefer some sweet soy bean sauce in it, that's how I cook it. If you prefer a lighter version, omit the soy bean paste and use more light soy sauce. The secret to this dish is to fry each type of veg separately in plenty of oil and avoid adding liquid, which means a lot of patience is needed to fry the veg over low heat until they are cooked. If patience is not yet developed in you, then go ahead and use some chicken stock, but sparingly. The dish should taste fried, not steamed or boiled and there shouldn't be any gravy or sauce. Another way to not test your patience is to julienne the veg so they cook quickly.
Di san xian reminds me of Italian caponata. If you cut the ingredients into meaty chunks, they are like a cross between meat and veg, so even carnivores like my son Wey will eat this dish.
Di San Xian
1/2 each green and red bell peppers
1 large young potato
1 Taiwan brinjal
1/2 T finely chopped garlic
1/2 T chopped garlic
1/2 T sweet Chinese soy bean sauce (I get mine from Shanghai)
1 t light soy sauce
3-4 T chicken stock if needed
Prep: If using young potatoes, it's ok to leave the skin on. Cut the potatoes into small chunky wedges. Do same with the brinjal but make sure it's cut longer and not too thick so that it can cook faster. Cut the peppers into diagonal pieces. For a neat presentation, try and cut all the veg about the same size.
1. Put 3/4 cup veg oil into a heated wok and fry the potatoes until light golden and cooked. Remove onto a plate. Fry the brinjals for about 1 minute, remove.
2. Pour all the oil away. The wok will still be coated with oil. Add the bell peppers & garlic to the unwashed wok, then when the peppers are half-cooked, add the potatoes and fry under low heat for a couple of minutes. Finally add the brinjals, the bean sauce and the soy sauce and fry for a minute. Usually a pinch of msg or chicken stock powder is added too. Fry well to mix and dish onto a serving plate. Serve hot.
note: if you find that your veg are burning and not fully cooked, lower the heat and add a tablespoon of chicken stock. Wait for the liquid to dry up before adding another spoonful if needed.