Chinese chefs are rightly renowned for their beautiful knifework. Some are so skilled they can turn the simplest ingredients into works of art, like a carrot into a flying phoenix or a radish into a delicate butterfly — objects that defy their modest beginnings with astonishing aplomb.
Today’s video takes a look at a particularly beautiful, yet easy, turn of the blade that results in what looks like a tiny, coiled dragon on a plate. The latticed cucumber skin has green and white interwoven with light and shadow, and tiny flecks of chili oil tantalize the nose. It is ostensibly little more than a palate teaser, but it owes its magic to a clever technique that Chinese chefs call huadao, or “flowered knives.”
To the folks in the central Chinese province of Sichuan, this pattern doesn’t look like a dragon, but rather calls to mind the traditional raincoat worn by farmers. Fashioned out of coarse palm coir, peasants used to don these simple capes while tending their fields. Elegant city people, of course, prefer fine silks and cottons, fabrics whose weaves are almost invisible. So, to their eyes, the latticework in these cucumbers echoes the rough weave of a farmer’s raincoat, or suo’i.
Though endowed with a complex beauty, these cucumbers are easy enough for beginning cooks to master, even without the Chinese chefs’ knife skills. The cucumbers are garnished with a spicy Sichuan-style vinaigrette suggested by the late chef Barbara Tropp, who had the inspired idea of adding orange peel to this vibrant chili-studded oil.
Citrus Chili Oil With Black Beans
Juxiang douchi layou
Makes about ½ cups
1 medium orange, preferably organic
4 teaspoons fermented black beans
3 tablespoons coarsely ground dried chili pepper
2 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons peeled and finely minced fresh ginger
⅓ cup peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil
1. Scrub the orange and pat dry. Peel off the zest with a potato peeler and chop it finely. (Use the rest of the orange for something else.)
2. Coarsely chop the fermented black beans, but do not rinse them. Measure out the ground chili pepper and add it to the black beans and orange peel.
3. Lightly smack the garlic cloves and peel them, but leave them more or less whole. Add the garlic and the ginger to the other flavoring ingredients.
4. Pour the two oils into a wok and add the flavorings. Slowly heat the oil until it bubbles lazily; the ingredients should never be cooked over high heat as they will brown quickly and turn bitter. When the oil is red and the dry ingredients have turned a crispy brown, turn off the heat and let the oil sit until it is cool; lightly smash the soft garlic cloves. Pour the oil, including the solids, into a covered jar and store in a cool place. Use within two weeks for the freshest flavor.
5. For the vinaigrette, use about 1 tablespoon of this chili oil and 1 tablespoon of the solids (which Chef Tropp liked to call “the goop”), and add 1 tablespoon each soy sauce, sugar and white rice vinegar; taste and adjust seasoning as wished.
Photo: Coir raincoat-style cucumbers. Credit: Carolyn J. Phillips