(zi su jian huang gua)

Excerpted from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province by Fuchsia Dunlop (W. W. Norton, 2007). Copyright 2007 by Fuchsia Dunlop

This is a truly extraordinary way of cooking cucumber, which brings out a most unexpected side to the vegetable. It is sizzled in oil with garlic and chili, seasoned with soy sauce and vinegar, and then scattered with leaves of purple perilla. The cucumber is both fragrant and juicily tender, and the perilla gives it a delightful sour herbiness. If you can't find perilla, the dish will work without it, but the herb lifts it into another culinary dimension. Because perilla is difficult to find, I have also tried this recipe using Thai sweet basil as a substituteĀ—its flavor is different, but in some way akin to perilla, and the dish is magnificent. Although this is cooked in a wok, it is not strictly a stir-fry: the cucumber pieces are colored by laying them more-or-less flat against the surface of the wok, a method known in Chinese as jian (pan-fry), rather than chao (stir-fry).

  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 fresh red chili, seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 tsp. finely chopped garlic
  • 1 1/2 tsp. light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. clear rice vinegar
  • A small handful purple perilla leaves, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp. sesame oil
  • 3 tbsp. peanut oil or lard for cooking

1. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise, and then, with the knife at an angle, cut each half into slanted, almost semicircular slices about 1/4 inch thick.

2. Heat the wok over a high flame until smoke rises, then add the oil or lard and swirl around. Add the cucumber and fry for a few minutes until the slices are tinged a little golden. Spread the slices out so they cover as much as possible of the bottom of the wok, turning from time to time.

3. Add the chili and garlic to the wok and stir-fry until fragrant, adding the soy sauce as you go. Splash the vinegar around the side of the wok and mix well. Add the perilla and stir a few times. Then, off the heat, stir in the sesame oil and serve.