The best thing about this salad is that you take a rolling pin and smash the cucumbers to smithereens, and I’m only exaggerating a little bit. You arrange the cucumbers on a chopping board and give them a good whack to split them, then, using your hands, tear the cucumbers into pieces, discarding any seeds that fall out. Ripping rather than cutting the cucumbers allows the bold, spicy dressing to penetrate into the craggy pieces. This is fast, fun, hands on cooking.
The smashed cucumber salad has jetted from it’s origin in China’s Sichuan province via Manhattan restaurants and landed firmly on the menu in London, infiltrating the internet on route. It seems to have overtaken a good old green side salad and I’ve eaten it 4 times in restaurants over as many months. The salad is simple but fully flavoured. Crisp, cool cucumbers take on a punchy dressing of vinegar, chilli, ginger, garlic, honey and soy sauce and the most delicious version I’ve eaten was at the Chinese Laundry Room in Islington. The proprietor said she uses a Taiwanese family recipe passed down from her Aunt that includes dried as well as fresh chillis, along with the exquisite Chinese black vinegar that is usual in these salads. It’s an aged vinegar, similar to but sharper and less sweet than balsamic, which gives a deep, fermented flavour to sauces and dressings. Black vinegar is not yet widely available in UK supermarkets so, as a substitute, I’ve used a combination of brown rice vinegar and Sherry vinegar, which brings about a similarly earthy flavour. This Gold Plum Chinese black vinegar is a new discovery for me, and recently I’ve used it as a condiment as well as an ingredient, an idea I borrowed from My Neighbour’s the Dumplings where they supply it as a dipping sauce for dim sum.
I’ve adapted my recipe from Melissa Clark’s in her new book Dinner and given what I find to be ideal quantities of the dressing ingredients. To echo the salad I ate at the Chinese Laundry Room I’ve used both fresh red chillis and dried Ancho chillis, which are very mild and have a sweeter, smoky, almost cocoa like flavour. You can select your own heat level by choosing from the numerous chillis available to you, but I encourage you to use a milder dried component like ancho chillis, which you can actually chew on without getting a sweat on.
What’s for Sippies?
Whether you eat this salad with fish, meat, eggs or tofu, the spicy chilli and strong vinegar will be the dominant flavours. A cold beer suits this salad best, and I’m loving the Beavertown Brewery Neck Oil Session IPA at the moment. It’s light and crisp but has more substance than a larger. Excellent with spicy food.