This is a bright and crunchy Hunanese pickle, full of tart sweetness and full of fire. Its celadon gleam and brisk crispness will enliven a whole array of foods, from cold Chinese noodles to leftover roasts to a hamburger freshly sizzling from the grill.
Trim the ends off the cucumbers, and peel the cucumbers if waxed.
If they need seeding, cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise, then cut each half crosswise into even segments about 2½ inches long. Remove the seeds using a teaspoon or tablespoon whose bowl matches the contour of the seed bed, cradling the cucumber in one hand while scooping the seeds out with the other. Then, turn the spoon upside-down, and scrape out any pulpy ribs or watery flesh. The watery pulp must be removed if the pickles are to be crunchy. Cut the seeded cucumber “boats” lengthwise into thin strips ¼ inch wide.
If you are using seedless cucumbers, cut them lengthwise into long, thin spears ¼ inch wide, then cut crosswise into strips 2–2½ inches long.
Put the cut cucumbers in a glass or stainless bowl. Toss well with the salt to mix, then seal and let stand at room temperature 6 hours or overnight, tossing occasionally. If you wish to hold them a bit longer, refrigerate after several hours to retard the salting process.
Drain the salting liquids. Gently press the excess water from the cucumbers by clasping them a handful at a time between your palms. Press firmly; do not wring. The vegetable should still be moist and firm when you are done.
Have the cucumbers and the stir-frying ingredients all within easy reach of your stovetop.
Heat a wok or heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the oil, swirl to coat the pan, then reduce the heat to medium-low and add a chili flake or two. When the pepper begins to sizzle, add the remaining pepper (and the garlic), and adjust the heat so it sizzles gently without scorching. If the chili burns, wipe the pan clean and begin anew. When the mixture is aromatic, in 3–6 seconds, add the cucumbers and toss briskly to glaze, adjusting the heat to maintain a lively sizzle. When the cukes are evenly glossed, in about 30 seconds, add the soy, sugar, and vinegar, then stir until the sugar is dissolved and the liquids are steaming. Taste for desired sweetness and adjust if required. The sauce should sparkle with a zesty hotness, though expect it to grow spicier as it sits. Raise the heat for about 15 seconds to bring the liquids to a boil, then scrape the mixture immediately into a glass or stainless bowl.
Press the cucumbers gently under the liquid, then let them sit at room temperature until cool, stirring occasionally. For best flavor, chill several hours or overnight before serving.
Serve the cucumbers chilled or at room temperature in a bowl of contrasting color or in individual dip dishes alongside each plate. Dribble a bit of the juices on top to gloss the pickles and give them some extra, sweet fire.
Store refrigerated in an immaculately clean glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. The pickles keep nicely 1–2 weeks and will grow in hotness over the first 2–3 days.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.