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Pickled Japanese cucumbers with chili oil

By Paul Suplee, MBA, CEC, PC-3

The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry, or as Robert Burns put it, “gang aft a-gley.”

The timeless Scottish poet, the Shakespeare of Scotland, was on to something. And while we have all heard one variation or another of this potent sentence, I would wager a bet that most people never realized that it is not a Steinbeck quote.

Rather, John Steinbeck used the line quite cleverly for his novel of Mice and Men, recognizing that all the effort put into any given venture can be wiped out in a moment by things out of our control (Personally, I never knew that it wasn’t Steinbeck until about 12 years ago, and I’m old, so that should say something).

And herein, kids, lies the meaning of life: to rebuild your kingdom after your nest hath been ploughed over by the farmer. There are just some things that we cannot control, and the point is to get up, brush off our dirty pants and get back to work.

In this case, the “farmer” was the events of the past two years. As I awoke one day earlier in the week, it was almost as though I was in a fever dream regarding the pandemic.

I was trying to discern whether it was a dream or reality, and obviously it only took a moment for me to remember that it was and is all too real. Living in one of the hardest-hit industries on the planet, I got cleaned up, strapped on my boots, and went back into offensive mode.

For restaurants, covid-19 and all its offshoots have decimated not only the industry itself but also the labor pool that used to exist to support it. Given all of our challenges, those of us still standing are doing satisfactorily, but many did not make it through at all.

I was shocked as I drove through Boston in late 2020 and saw so many shuttered shops, learning through online research that they were closed permanently.

I was dismayed when I walked through Manhattan recently and found so many empty spaces and quite a few restaurants out of business.

One day, the market will return but it is a very slow recovery from the devastating blow that was dealt, especially in terms of employees who left the industry for good. And honestly, the landscape in the industry is changing at breakneck speeds.

We are truly in an historic phase of redevelopment that displays a teetering of powers between labor costs, rising food costs and sheer survival.

With remodeling and reinvention on the horizon for all our locations, we plan to push forward and make sure that we survive the aftermath of this mess. And on days when I know that I need a clear head and don’t need anything weighing me down as I make yet more do-or-fail decisions, I turn to some old standbys in the arsenal to offer me some quick sustenance and keep me running all day.

We don’t need those heavy snacks weighing us down. And so I leave you with this incredibly simple pickled Japanese cucumber.

It might not be the perfect brain food, but it will sit so much better than fast food as you plow through the day.

Pickled Japanese Cucumbers

serves 4

2 ea. Japanese Cucumbers, or 1 English cucumber

1/4 c. Mirin

1/4 c. Sake

1/4 c. Water

1/4 c. Sugar

1/4 c. Aloha Shoyu Soy Sauce brand

Japanese Chili oil (recipe follows)

sesame seeds, as needed

  • Don’t use ‘normal’ (Persian) cucumbers. They have a higher water content and seeds that can be a nuisance.
  • If you are using Japanese cucumbers, cut them into 1-inch rings, assuming that the cucumber is small enough in diameter. If you are using English cucumbers, cut in half lengthwise, and then cut into 1-inch half moons.
  • Combine mirin, sake, water, sugar and shoyu in a pan and bring to a boil so everything is dissolved and then remove.
  • Let sit for a few minutes and then add chili oil (to your preference).
  • Mix the pickling solution with the cucumbers, ensuring that the cukes are covered. A large glass jar works wonders.
  • Allow to sit in the icebox for eight hours to two days. They are ready to serve after the former period.
  • Serve garnished with sesame seeds and thinly sliced scallions

Japanese Chili Oil (La-Yu)

makes about 1 cup

1 c. Grapeseed oil

3 Tbsp. Toasted sesame oil

The green of one scallion

2-inches ginger, peeled and cut into large chunks

2 ea. Garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed to crack

1/4 c. Korean chili flakes*

  • Char the scallion in a dry pan or open flame to bring out a little umami flavor.
  • Bring the oil, scallion, garlic and ginger up in heat until ingredients just start to fry but not burn.
  • Allow to steep for about 10 minutes and then remove from heat before it starts to smoke.
  • Add the chili flakes and stir well.
  • After about 30 minutes, strain through a fine sieve and store properly (fridge) until ready to use.

*If you can find a Japanese chili flake to work with, then definitely do so. These, like the Korean dried chili, have an amazing flavor while having little to no heat to speak of. It is a wonderful flavoring device.

— Paul G. Suplee is an Associate Professor of Culinary Arts
at Wor-Wic Community  College.
Find his ePortfolio at