Some things are just good. Some surprising things. Cucumber has never been a veg that I have rushed out to buy. It has its place in pickles and raita and other lovely things, but cucumber has never been a shining star for me. Cucumber has been a soothing calming addition to other dishes.
Two things changed. Most recently, I started growing them in my garden. They were a last minute addition, and I was more curious than excited. First I discovered the gorgeous yellow cucumber flowers, fragrant of cucumber and bright as joy. Then, the cucumbers started to appear and I discovered just how good they were eaten straight from the plant. I eat them as I would an apple, just divine.
The second thing was that some years back I discovered smacked cucumber salad, a Sichuan staple. At the time I was eating at Sichuan restaurants on a regular basis. I adore the food and I was a little obsessed. My friend’s friend from Chengdu would order for us (in restaurants in London), and we would get wonderful dishes that weren’t on the menu, and spiced as they should be (HOT), and not spiced for pale faces as I often found they were when I would go on my own (not in all restaurants but a few were shocking for that).
In one restaurant in London notorious for doing this, I asked them to serve my food like they would eat it. They hated me for that and laughed in my face and said there was no way I could take it. I explained that I had before, and they proceeded to deliver me something so criminally out it was impossible to eat, but I did. The staff had sat at the next table to watch me. It is not something that I would ever do again. It was so painful, in every way.
I started reading as much as I could about Sichuan cooking. For home cooks the first stop should be Fuchsia Dunlop’s book Sichuan Cookery (which now appears to be published as Land of Plenty), and in general I heartily recommend all of her books, particularly her memoir of eating in China, Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper, a wonderful read peppered with recipes).
I discovered the recipe for this garlicky smacked cucumber salad in a more recent book, Every Grain of Rice. This recipe is simple and quick. The fresh coolness of the cucumber contrasts beautifully with the intense black vinegar and soy sauce, and the punchy chilli oil. The garlic – and lots of it – brings everything to life. I sometimes add peanuts to it, this time I used toasted sesame seeds and some lovely edible flowers and leaves from the garden (yellow cucumber flowers, purple (cucumber scented) borage flowers and nasturtium leaves).
Why smack the cucumber? Well, it is fun but it also breaks the texture down a little. A good smash (but not too much), followed by a chop and some salt, loosens the texture and makes the cucumber more receptive to the dressing.
This is a wonderful recipe. I love it as a light supper on its own if I have had a big lunch, or as a side with BBQ chicken.
This recipe is adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe in Every Grain of Rice. After a few versions I settled on this one in which I substitute honey for sugar, and I used a little less chilli oil.
Serves 2 as a starter / side dish
- cucumber 1 (about 300g) - I used 2 small ones from the garden
- 4 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp finely chopped garlic - approx 3 cloves
- 2 tsp honey
- 2 tsp soy sauce
- 4 tsp Chinkiang (brown rice) vinegar
- 1 tsp chilli oil
- a pinch or two of ground roasted Sichuan pepper (optional)
- garnish: 1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds and edible flowers (optional)
Lay the cucumber on a chopping board and smack it hard a few times with the flat blade of a Chinese cleaver or with a rolling-pin.
Cut it lengthways into four pieces. Hold your knife at an angle to the chopping board and cut the cucumber on the diagonal into 1cm slices.
Place in a bowl with the salt, mix well and set aside for about 10 minutes.
Combine all the other ingredients in a small bowl.
Drain the cucumber (I rinse it briefly as I find it too salty otherwise), pour over the sauce, stir well and serve immediately.
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