Story and Photography by Lindsay Sterling
I met Ann Shen, a twenty-year-old marketing student from Guilin, China, at work. I was writing catalogues of CIEE’s international exchange programs, and she was taking phone calls from fellow students who were working summer jobs in the United States. When she discovered that I write this Immigrant Kitchens column, she said that she would love to teach me how make one of her favorite, easy, Chinese side dishes.
We met on Sunday at her place on a quiet street in the East End, a house she shared with 10 other international students. The name of her favorite dish sounded to me like "Lemeh hong gua." She said the words in Chinese meant, “cool cucumber.” The dish was indeed easy. Basically you cut the cucumbers into wedge-shaped segments, stack them up like a neat woodpile on a serving dish, and then sprinkle a bunch of stuff on top of them: vinegar, chili, soy sauce, sesame oil, fresh scallions, and cilantro. Easy, except for one thing.
Two of the ingredients that she used had come directly from China in her suitcase, and we didn’t know what they were in English. She poured two tablespoons of a black liquid from a large bottle with a bunch of Chinese on it. “Vinegar,” she offered, her best translation. I tasted it—interesting, familiar, definitely vinegar, but not sweet like balsamic vinegar and not clean like white or light colored vinegars I knew. After a little research online, I discovered this to be Chinese black vinegar, usually made out of glutinous rice, and then aged, which gives it an earthy, smoky complexity.
She picked up another mystery jar, the contents of which looked like maroon jelly studded with light seeds and some larger, light colored chunks. “Chili sauce,” she said. Well good, I thought, that narrows my search down to a couple thousand food products. I tasted it, and it was unlike any chili sauce I knew. It was made up of crunchy, blackish-red solids and chili seeds, packed in red oil. It was spicy hot, then oddly warm, tingly, and pleasantly numbing. She put four tablespoons of this on the cucumbers.
Then she watched in amazement as I failed with chopsticks to get an oil-dressed cucumber to my mouth. After she gave me a fork, I experienced a fireworks show of contrasts: cool and spicy, crunchy and slippery, aged and fresh.
After we cooked, I found the same style of chili paste at Hong Kong Market at the corner of Congress and St. John, this time with the ingredients listed in English: Sichuan peppercorn husks (also known as prickly ash), dried red chilis (with seeds), whole peanuts, salt, and oil.
Scared of intense flavors? Tingling lips? Weird, but thrilling, heat? Dishes that call themselves “cool” when they’re really hot? Then you might not like this dish. I found it to be an awesome little adventure, inspiring me to “stack and drizzle” with all sorts of veggies from the farmer’s market – easy and beautiful! My husband’s opinion of Anne’s recipe: “It’s really good, I like it, but I wouldn’t want to eat it every day.”