Ma means numbing, as in Szechwan peppercorns; “la” means spicy, as in hot peppers. The combination is a classic one in central Chinese cooking, where these crispy cucumber pickles claim their origin.

Slender, seedless Japanese cucumbers are ideal for their sweet taste and solid texture. Kirby pickling cucumbers or slender hydroponic or English cucumbers (scooped of their seeds if large) are good second choices.

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Ingredients

  • 1 pound firm Japanese or Kirby cucumbers
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Aromatics

  • teaspoons finely julienned fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
  • Scant ½ teaspoon dried red chili flakes
  • ½ teaspoon Szechwan peppercorns

Sauce

  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 scant tablespoon corn or peanut oil
  • Several drops of Japanese sesame oil

Method

  1. Remove the ends from the cucumbers and cut into 2-inch lengths. Grasping a segment at a time, cut the cucumber crosswise at -inch intervals into a fan (see Vegetable Fans, following).
  2. Toss the cucumber fans with the salt and set aside for 30 minutes. (They will soften and a pool of liquid will appear in the bottom of the bowl.) Drain, rinse with cool water, then squeeze the cukes gently to remove excess water.
  3. Combine the aromatics in a small dish. Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl.
  4. Heat a wok or medium-size heavy skillet over moderate heat until hot enough to slowly sizzle a bead of water. Add the corn and sesame oils, swirl to glaze the bottom, and reduce the heat to low. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle a bit of minced garlic, add the aromatics. Stir until fully fragrant, about 10 seconds, adjusting the heat so the mixture foams without browning. (Judge with your nose whether to add another pinch of chili; the smell should be zesty enough to make you rear back.)
  5. Add the cucumbers, toss to combine, then add the sauce. Toss gently to blend and dissolve the sugar. Taste and adjust with more sugar if required to bring out the fullness of the chili. Stir until the liquid steams, then remove from the heat.
  6. Layer the cucumbers, fan side down, in a shallow bowl, and scrape the liquids on top. For best flavor, let cool, then seal and refrigerate overnight. Serve slightly chilled.
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