How to make Spicy Cucumber Pickles

I’ve eaten these pickles quite often—they’re relatively popular in China— and after finding a good, basic recipe in a Chinese cookbook, I thought I’d share it. They’re simple to make and delicious to munch on, especially on a hot summer day.

Before I get to the recipe, I’d like to share a bit on what I’ve gleaned over the past week on how to eat pickled vegetables. Pickled vegetables are to be eaten as a compliment to a dish rather than the main thing. The most likely reason for this is that in order preserve vegetables, salt must be used. Too much salt is not beneficial to our diet. In older times in China, preserved vegetables were what got people through the winters without vitamin deficiency or scurvy. Not to mention that they’re a tasty addition to many traditional dishes and soups. But within the past few decades, especially after the advent of widespread refrigerator usage, some people have begun to lay off the pickled veggies.

My host mother said that it’s only within the past 10 years that people have begun to reevaluate the health benefits of pickled vegetables, which I would probably attribute to new research on probiotic bacteria and their positive influence on human health. However, certain people, like her father-in-law who has had trouble with his heart and is thus trying to cut his sodium intake, still lay off eating pickles.

“Enjoy fermented foods and beverages in moderation. They have powerful effects and strong flavors that need to be respected. Eat them often rather than in large quantities,” writes Sandor Katz in The Art of Fermentation. Curious about this distrust-of-salt-phenomenon among the Chinese population, I recently wrote Katz to ask if he had also encountered it. He said that in studies where epidemiologists looked at overall diet, there was no elevated rates of cancer for people who ate a balanced diet of fresh vegetables and preserved vegetables, as opposed to a diet where salty vegetables are consumed in high quantities and fresh ones are consumed in low quantities.

This “healthy in moderation” phenomenon can be likened to one of the world’s favorite fermented beverages: wine. While antioxidant compounds in wine called flavonoids have been linked to boosting good cholesterol, healthy lipid digestion, and reducing blood clotting (many attribute the unique combination of high consumption of fatty foods and long life spans of the French to their wine intake), these benefits are maximized by drinking a glass a day, at most. Excessive intake actually becomes a detriment to health.

Another way that I’ve found the Chinese are able to eat these foods skillfully and in moderation is by adding them to things that probably would have already had salt added. Salted mustard greens can make an excellent base for a soup (especially when combined with sesame oil!), and I’ve encountered a few meat dishes also that are actually cooked with salted or dried vegetables, thus eliminating the need for salt. Really, you can add them to almost anything savory it seems— doughy pancakes, dumpling filling, a garnish to a stew—the list goes on.

Now, on to the good stuff: the recipe!

This isn’t my own picture, but it’s a pretty close approximation to what the finished pickles look like.


  • Two large cucumbers
  • Rock salt, one small spoonful
  • Vinegar (any kind will do), four big spoonfuls
  • White sugar, six big spoonfuls
  • Chili pepper oil, five big spoonfuls
  • Soy sauce, two big spoonfuls
  • Table salt, one small spoonful
  • Dry chili pepper, one piece
  • Fresh garlic, 6 cloves
  • Black peppercorns, 1 small spoonful
  • Cloves, one small spoonful
  • Star anise, two pieces

The recipe was in terms of big and small spoonfuls. This is all relative. I take small to mean a pinch, and big to mean not more than a teaspoon. You could interpret it differently. Also, if you don’t like one of the ingredients, like star anise or cloves, don’t add it. Cucumbers and salt are really the most important players here.

How to make it:

  1. Wash the cucumbers and cut them into two inch long cylinders. Cut each cylinder into four, length-wise, so you have four, long, two-inch cucumber strips per cylinder.
  2. Transfer the cucumbers to a bowl and spread the rock salt over them. The salt will cause the cucumbers to exude some water. After salting the cucumbers for 20 minutes, drain the water out and set them aside. You can wash the excess salt off if you like as well, because more salt is added later in the recipe.
  3. Take the seeds out of the dry hot peppers and cut them into rings. I would recommend using a pair of scissors to do this, cutting up the pepper width-wise. Mince the garlic into small pieces and set it aside.
  4. In a bowl, mix the vinegar, sugar, hot pepper oil, soy sauce, salt, and minced garlic. Stir until the sugar and salt completely dissolve.
  5. Stir in the pepper, cloves, star anise, and dried hot pepper rings.
  6. Pour the sauce over the cucumbers, and transfer the mixture to a jar.
  7. Now you have two options. If you want to make these into real, lacto fermented pickles, you can pour mildly salted water over them until it reaches the top of the jar, make sure the cucumbers are below the surface, and let them sit out for two days. After two days, you should have crunchy delicious pickles. Put them in the refrigerator after this 2 day fermentation period. However, if you wish to preserve the crunchy, mild cucumber flavor instead, you can just put them in the refrigerator without the salt brine. Still, wait two days to eat them, so all of the juices can soak in.

Note: This may be obvious, but unless you have a real penchant for spices, don’t eat the black pepper, cloves, or star anise.

Happy Pickling!

(By the way, if you were wondering which type of wine has the most antioxidants, researchers at U.C. Davis identified Cabernet Sauvignon as being the most antioxidant rich.)


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