Chinese Garlic & Vinegar Cucumber Salad
I think I’m safe (and a more than a little obvious) when I say that the food of Asia is wildly diverse. But there is at least one feature that unites many of the exceptional cuisines of the continent, and that is an abiding love for simple vegetable preparations, both pickled and fresh, served as sides or accompaniments. In general, these vegetables add colour, brightness, and flavour designed to brighten or enliven the palate. These quick-marinated cucumbers, pungent and hot with a pleasingly sour bite, are a perfect accompaniment to any number of meals.
But let me step back for a moment – you shouldn’t consider this a mere side dish or condiment. In my opinion, this is the absolute best way to eat cucumbers. If every vegetable dish was as simple and tasty as this, there’d be a lot more vegetables on our plates. They are stunningly simple to prepare, and yet they bring such a distinctive and memorable taste to the table that people can’t help but take notice. The Mandarin Chinese name (Liángbàn Huángguā; 涼拌黃瓜) basically just translates to cucumber salad, but that doesn’t really do these cukes justice. Indeed, you’ll see lots of English name variations out there, emphasizing the garlic, vinegar, hot pepper, or the delightfully smashed texture. Superb, regardless of nomenclature.
If you’re new to exploring or experimenting with Chinese cuisine, you’d do well to start here. You don’t need a lot of specialized ingredients, and you don’t even need to cook. Liángbàn Huángguā is also a pretty common dish all around China and Taiwan, and is often regionally tweaked. If you’re so inclined, consider adding things like finely sliced carrots, firm tofu (doukan), Sichuan peppercorns, or ginger (for more on this, see the Recipe Notes below). Personally, I like this side as it is… simple, but memorable.
Small, firm Japanese or Lebanese cucumbers are ideal for this recipe because they’re less watery and they stand up well to mixing/smashing. If you can’t find any, you can still make this with common field or English cucumbers – simply use a spoon to remove the seeds from the center first, then chop the firm fleshy portion into nice bite-sized pieces. Whether you leave the skin on these larger cucumbers or not will depend on how tough it is (field cucumbers are often quite thick-skinned).
It’s pretty easy to tweak this to your individual tastes. If you’d like it a little more sour, add more vinegar. Sweeter? Add a bit of sugar. If you want some more heat, leave the seeds and membranes in the chilies and/or add more chilies (one seeded chili makes for a rather mild version). It can be further modified by adding thinly sliced carrots, some minced or slivered ginger, crushed Sichuan peppercorns (a variation that is, suitably, popular in Sichuan), thinly sliced firm tofu (doukan) and more. Ultimately though, I recommend starting with a very basic recipe and working from there.
If you happen to be preparing this on the fly and you don’t have a container with a tight-fitting lid, simply smash the cucumbers under the broad side of a cleaver before tossing them into a bowl. Pour the sauce over everything and let it stand for 15 minutes or so before serving.
The cucumbers will be at their best if eaten within 2 hours of being made (keep them in the refrigerator until you’re ready to eat them). They can easily be kept refrigerated longer, but the cucumbers will give up more and more water over time, causing the vinegar mixture to become more and more dilute. If you have leftovers that have been in the fridge overnight, consider adding a little more sugar and vinegar to taste.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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