This is another of those dishes that we were served in at the Panda House restaurant. I have tried to replicate this dish before, but I think this one comes closer than my last attempt. In America, we had always eaten our cucumbers either raw or pickled. It simply would not have occurred to me to fry something like a cucumber. However, because of the dangers of using night soil as fertilizer, the Chinese cook almost all of their vegetables—the rest are pickled.
Note: When we taught English at KēDà (science big)—our university in Chengdu, Sichuan, PRC—we lived in foreigner housing on campus. While it may have had a real name, everyone call it the Panda house—partly because its design was almost identical to the panda house at the local zoo, but also because we were there early enough that the sight of foreigners was still a novel sight that would gather crowds. The last time we were in Chengdu, our university had been absorbed by the university next door, Sichuan University—ChuanDà, river big—but the Panda House was still there.
This may not be the exact recipe we were served, but it is the closest yet to the taste I remember. One reason for this is that I have found no American source for unprocessed rapeseed oil. This very strongly flavored oil is used in Chengdu for most of their cooking. It tasted very odd when we first arrived in China, but now nothing tastes quite “right” without it. In America, it is thoroughly processed and is sold as the tasteless “canola oil.” This is pure marketing, what American would buy something called “rape oil.”
I have made several changes from the last time I made this dish. First, instead of the chili garlic sauce I used last time, I have found commercial crispy chili sauce—which is closer to the là jiāo yóu (辣椒油, chili pepper oil) used in Sichuan—while I have tried making this myself it is quite the production. Another change was to add Sichuan pickle to the dish —Zha cai; 榨菜). This sour pickled mustard root is one of the distinctive flavors of Sichuan. My final change was to add some red bell pepper, but just to add some color to the dish.
Another change I made was to salt and sweat the cucumbers. In China, almost all cooking is done using coal or gas, which allows the wok to get a lot hotter than an American electric stove—the breath of the wok. Cucumbers are a very wet vegetable and in China the super-hot wok sears the vegetables faster than they can release their juices. In the low temperatures of an electric stove the cucumbers stew in their own juices rather than searing. Removing the excess moisture is essential to making this dish properly.
Karl’s Sichuan Stir Fried Cucumbers
1 English cucumber
2 Tbs. peanut oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
¼ cup Suchuan pickle
1 Tbs. crispy chili oil
1 tsp. minced ginger
1 tsp. dark sesame oil
¼ cup red bell pepper, cut into matchsticks
1. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and slice—on a steep diagonal—into ¼ inch thick pieces.
2. Sprinkle the slices with salt and toss to distribute and set them aside to sweat out their excess moisture.
Tip: Toss occasionally to redistribute the saline solution.
3. After half an hour drain and blot the cucumber slices dry with a paper towel.
Note: If you have a gas stove you may be able to skip these steps depending on how hot your stove can get.
4. In a sauté pan, or wok, stir fry the cucumbers in the oil, over high heat, until translucent (about 5 minutes).
Tip: Spread the slices out in a single layer and leave them undisturbed for the first 3-4 minutes to get a good sear on one side.
Note: Knocking the vegetables about—while stir frying—causes the vegetables to release their juices more rapidly. Unless you have a super hot wok, this is to be avoided.
5. Add the garlic and Sichuan pickle and toss the contents of the pan.
6. Arrange the vegetables in a single layer again and let them sit for another minute or two.
7. Add the crispy chili, ginger, and sesame oil to the pan.
Tip: It helps to add a tablespoon of water to thin the sauce enough to coat the vegetables.
8. Toss to coat the vegetables in the sauce and stir fry for one to two minutes more.
9. Add the red bell pepper and stir fry for one more minute.
10. Transfer to a serving bowl—arranging some of the red pepper as a garnish—and serve immediately.