Following my great success with Fuschia Dunlop’s second cookbook, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province, I decided to go back to her first book, Land of Plenty, on Sichuan food.
I love cucumber salads and am always on the lookout for a new one. (The old salt-sugar-chile-vinegar one pales after a few hundred variations.) So I was intrigued to find this lightly cooked version, and had to try it right away.This recipe uses Sichuan peppercorns, not always an easy spice to find. (And, of course, not “real” peppercorns; they are the berry of the Prickly Ash.) For a while they were nearly impossible to find in the United States due to an import ban by the FDA. In 2005, the ban was lifted on Sichuan peppercorns heat-treated to remove the possibility of bringing a citrus canker to the US.
During the years of the ban, I carefully hoarded my little tube of Sichuan peppercorns. This wasn’t hard, as I couldn’t find many recipes that used them! No longer a problem with Land of Plenty in my kitchen.
Sichuan peppercorns are responsible for the “numbing” sensation referred to in the recipe title. The Chinese word for this flavor is ma. There really is nothing else I know of that causes this sensation — menthol is the closest I can think of. It is routinely mixed with hot flavors (la) to form the popular Sichuan flavor combination ma la.
If you can’t find Sichuan pepper locally, Penzey’s sells it by mail-order, as does Amazon.com.
The tingly flavor of Sichuan pepper makes this dish really sing, but it would be tasty without. The brief cooking gives the cucumbers a surprising, suave texture and sweetness that play well against the heat of the chile.
I modified the recipe slightly by adding a splash of seasoned rice vinegar at the end. (See? I can’t give up the salt-sugar-oil-vinegar cucumber salad after all!)
Ma La Cucumber Salad
1 English cucumber (the kind that come wrapped in plastic)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon peanut oil
8 small dried red chiles, cut in half if you’d like a spicier salad
1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon seasoned rice vinegar (or regular rice vinegar plus a pinch of sugar)
Cut the cucumber into 2- to 3-inch sections. Cut each section in half, scoop out the seeds, and cut lengthwise to make straight pieces about the size of French fries. Sprinkle with the salt, toss well, and let sit at least half an hour. Drain and press lightly between paper towels to dry.
Heat a wok or medium skillet over high heat. Add the peanut oil and let get quite hot. Turn the heat down to medium and add chiles and Sichuan pepper. Stir until they smell spicy and the chiles darken a bit. Be careful not to burn the spices!
Add the cucumber and toss for about 10 seconds. Immediately remove from the heat, add the sesame oil and vinegar, and pour into a serving bowl. Let cool. Serve at room temperature or lightly chilled.
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