This fantastic Chinese pickle was a signature dish at an iconic Sydney restaurant a few years back. I have recently started working with one of the chefs from that restaurant, and this is her version of the recipe.
The theory behind this dish is the same with any pickle, that is, sweetened vinegar mixed with spices that marinate a specific vegetable, or vegetables. It is the exotic ingredients in this pickle that make it so alluringly different.
Start with the vinegar. Most western pickles will use plain white or perhaps cider vinegar as their base. These can be harshly acidic. In this version, mellow Chinese rice vinegar is used. The sweetener in this case is yellow rock sugar, a unique Chinese rock candy that is a mix of refined sugar, molasses and honey. It has a deep and satisfying flavour. Add the wonderful spices, particularly the mouth-numbing Szechwan peppercorns and you have a pickle like none you have ever tasted.
The applications for this pickle are fairly wide. Start by thinking what you would normally serve a cucumber pickle with and move on from there. It is not only Chinese dishes that this pickle can marry with. We were recently serving it with a seared tuna steak and a wedge of lemon. It was sublime. Try pairing it with a quickly roasted breast of chicken for a fast and scrumptious meal.
500 gm (1 lb) cucumbers
25 gm (1 oz) sea salt
125 ml (1/2 cup) peanut oil (or plain vegetable oil)
4 dried red chillies (hot peppers), cut in half
1 finger sized knob of ginger, peeled ant cut into matchsticks
6 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 20 minutes
70 ml (1/4 cup) Chinese rice wine vinegar (clear, not red or black)
60 gm (2 oz) yellow rock sugar (or use caster sugar with 1 tsp honey)
1/2 Tbs Szechwan pepper, roasted and ground
Cut the ends from the cucumbers and slice in half lengthways. Using a spoon, scrape out the seeds. Cut the cucumber into batons about 5 cm long and 1 cm across. Place in a bowl with the salt and toss to combine. Set aside for an hour. Pour away any moisture exuded from the cucumbers and squeeze out any excess. Pat dry with kitchen towels. Drain the mushrooms and squeeze out any moisture. Remove the stem and discard, then finely slice the caps.
Heat the oil in a wok, and then add the chillies. Cook until they darken then add all the remaining ingredients except the cucumbers. Stir well for 2 minutes over the heat. Add the cucumbers and stir to combine the flavours. Pack into a sterilized jar. Keep refrigerated for up to 2 months.