As the mercury in Baltimore and DC has recently approached or broken 100° Fahrenheit, many folks here have turned to an easier, cooler way to dine. A few small salads or appetizers, some fresh bread and a light dinner is served. A sort of a Central Atlantic, tapas-style meal if you will. Slaws and potato salads are standard offerings in this region, but for those who wish to try a dish which brings an exotic dash to the table, these Bhutanese pickles are a must. They are simple to make, need only sit for a couple of weeks before using, and are possible to eat a bit earlier if a sweeter, thinner pickle is desired.
As part of our continuing exploration of the food of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, these delightful pickles are sweet and lightly hot at the same time, with occasional blasts of coriander or cumin seed, giving a lighter, spicier flavor to them as you eat. For those with heat-sensitive palates, the number of chilies can be reduced for a gentler pickle, but as written, the recipe is a nice balance of sweet, hot, and spicy flavors.
A few words about pickling juice. I like my pickles crunchy, regardless of the ethnic background of the recipe. The best way to ensure crunchy pickles is to use room temperature or barely warm pickling jiuce. Its easy enough to do, but it may take a bit of planning, and a hour or more for the pickling liquid to cool.
Sweet and Spicy Bhutanese Pickled Cucumbers
4 Asian cucumbers or 1-2 large western ones
1 tablespoon sea salt
11/2 cups rice vinegar
1 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
4-5 finger-hot chili pepper or 4 hot, dried Thai chili peppers, diced
Slice cucumbers to fit a sealable jar or container. Remove seeds, if desired. You may cut the cucumber into chunks or spears; there is really no set way to shape the pickles. In general, the thinner the slices or chunks, the less time required to pickle. Salt the cucumbers and let stand for a couple of hours, preferably in a warm place.
Warm rice vinegar and water in a small saucepan and stir in the sugar until dissolved. When done, remove from heat and let cool to warm or room temperature.
Transfer the cucumbers into the sealable container and add the crushed Szechuan peppercorns, the cumin and coriander seeds and the diced chili pepper into the jars being sure to divide them evenly. Then, pour the sweetened vinegar over them. Depending on how you sliced or diced the cucumbers, you may need a second batch of sweetened vinegar to cover the vegetables. Seal jar and give them a good shake or two. Set aside in a cold place for about a week before eating. For a sweeter pickle, it may be possible to enjoy after a few days.
After a week, the jars should be kept in a refrigerator or in another cold place, even if unopened, to avoid them becoming too sour. If a jar is forgotten and allowed to sour too much, the cucumbers can still be used to add a sour blast to stews, curries or soups – sort of like one might do with too sour kimchee – make kimchee jigaae.
The magic ingredient that really sets these pickles apart is the Szechuan peppercorns. Related to both the rue and citrus families (not other types of peppercorns or chilies) Szechuan pepper imparts a distinct, zingy flavor to recipes, and can numb the lips and tongue in large quantities. It is also one of the cornerstone seasonings in Bhutanese cuisine and makes a deliciously, unique pickle.
In Bhutan, these pickles would probably be served over rice or with bread. Accompanying flavors would include fresh, cooked or pickled chili peppers and cheese or yogurt. Feel free to experiment with how they work on your table. Good recipes are made to be personalized and adapted for individual use.
Variations: Thinly sliced carrots can be added to the cucumbers, or the pickling recipe and method can be used to pickle other vegetables en seul or in a mix such as the popular asparagus and mushroom combination enjoyed in Bhutan.
(Words and recipe by Laura Kelley; Photos of Sliced Bhutanese Pickles and Szechuan Peppercorns by ZKruger@Dreamstime.com)