Have you ever fried cucumber? Even though it’s one of the vegetables I eat most often, such a way to serve it had never crossed my mind before I saw this recipe in the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop. In constant search of new ways to cook shiso (see below), I prepared this dish out of pure curiosity, considering it a rather risky experiment. Luckily, quickly fried, still crunchy and juicy cucumber tasted surprisingly well. Paired with strong, slightly astringent shiso leaves, fresh chili and vinegar, it created a bold-tasting and original side-dish.
Shiso (紫蘇), or perilla, is an Asian aromatic dark red or green plant with an astringent taste and strong fragrance. I have discovered it thanks to the Japanese cuisine, where it’s frequently used raw, cooked and its red variety is gives a reddish hue to pickles. Similar varieties of this herb are also used in Korean (ggaennip, 깻잎) and Vietnamese (tía tô) cuisines. Thanks to Fuchsia Dunlop’s book I learnt that perilla is also appreciated in China. Shiso is not to everyone’s taste, but I instantly fell in love with its herbaceous aroma and the more I cook with it, the more I appreciate it.
Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, which presents the Hunan province, has not only revealed a new way to prepare cucumber. It has most of all made be realise I am very fond of the combination of hot, salty and sour flavours, typical of this place (and often distorted abroad by the addition of sugar). The few dishes I cooked from this book (I hope to share them with you soon) were excellent and proved once more that Fuchsia Dunlop approaches food writing with discipline and passion. I equally – and even more – recommend her “Sichuan Cookery” which is one of the best cookery books I have ever seen.
If you like cucumber and have access to shiso, try this simple but surprising (at least for me) recipe. I haven’t modified the original instructions and have only changed amounts of ingredients. If you don’t find shiso, the author advises Thai sweet basil and I totally agree. The taste will be completely different, but it’s also a strong, aromatic herb, which gives excellent results when cooked. For me, the taste of the dish is interesting enough to try making it without any herb.
If you look for shiso cooking ideas, you might like some of these:
Preparation: about 15 minutes
Ingredients (serves two):
1/2 long cucumber
1 red chili (fresh)
1 garlic clove
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
4 tablespoons chopped perilla leaves (the recipe calls for purple perilla leaves, but I’m sure you can use the green variety too)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon peanut or canola oil
Halve the cucumber lengthwise and then cut diagonally into 0.5 cm/about 1/4 in thick slices.
Chop the chili and the garlic. (Remove the chili seeds if you don’t want your dish to be too hot).
Heat one tablespoon oil in a pan or wok.
Spread the cucumber slices at the bottom and fry them at high heat until they are slightly golden on one side (about 2 minutes). Turn them and fry the other side in the same way.
Add the chili, the garlic and the soy sauce. Stir-fry for a couple of minutes.
Add the vinegar and the chopped perilla.
Stir well the dish for one minute and put the pan aside.
Add the sesame oil and stir well before serving.