Asian food expert Bruce Cost told me years back that two-toned Vietnamese tia to (red perilla) was also used by the Chinese. I didn't see it mentioned until I read Fuchsia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. In her collection of Hunan recipes was this gem. It's unusual to cook cucumber but it's understandable. There are few vegetables that are eaten raw in the Chinese repertoire so it's no wonder that cucumber gets cooked. Pan-frying turns cucumber into a juicy morsel with a slight pickle-like crunch.
The aromatics and seasonings enliven the flavors. At the end, chopped red perilla (aka purple perilla, zi su in Mandarin) is added for an herby finish. Our mild winter left me with a decent amount of tia to leaves in my garden. Thai basil could be substituted if you can't find the perilla, which is sold at Vietnamese and Chinese markets catering to Vietnamese shoppers. In Chinese, this Hunan dish is called zi su jian huang gua.
Serves 2 as a side dish
1 English cucumber, about 1 pound
2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
1 large red moderately-hot chile, such as Fresno, seeded and chopped
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons light (regular) soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons unseasoned rice vinegar
1/4 cup finely chopped red perilla (tia to), see Vietnamese Herb Primer for details
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Trim the ends and halve the cucumber lengthwise. Use a teaspoon to scoop out the seeds. Cut the cucumber crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick pieces.
2. Heat a large wok or skillet over high heat. Swirl in the oil. Add the cucumber, spreading the pieces out to cover as much of the cooking surface as possible. Cook, undisturbed for 1 minute, then turn to fry the other side. Repeat this 2 or 3 times to pan-fry the cucumber until they look shiny and a few pieces pick up color. (This recipe is technically a Chinese pan-fried dish but the actual cooking marries pan-frying and stir-frying.)
3. Add the chile and garlic. Cook for 15 to 30 seconds until fragrant, then add the soy sauce and a few pinches of salt. Add the vinegar and stir to mix well. Turn off the heat. Dump in the red perilla and stir to combine. Turn off the heat and drizzle in the sesame oil. Stir, then transfer to a serving dish.
(Adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, W. W. Norton, 2007)
More Hunan recipes: