Cucamelon Sunomono

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Cucamelon Sunomono

I have always been an unabashed biology geek. When I was 3 years old, the staff at my pediatrician’s office would make a point of asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up, because apparently it’s adorable to hear a 3-year-old say “a paleontologist.” I started bird-watching at 10, and collecting bugs shortly after that. I read every biology book I could get my hands on. My passion carried me through three degrees and into classrooms where I get to share my excitement with others (whether they liked it or not). Nowadays I get to express my love of biology (and science in general) in a variety of ways, but oddly enough it is at the intersection of biology and food where I find my passion has deepened the most. I get genuinely excited about produce. I’m captivated by unusual cultivars, forgotten foods, and the issues and controversies surrounding food science. As an example, I frequently read up on produce items that I’ve never actually encountered – you know, so that I’m READY.

So it happened that I found myself strolling through the Trout Lake Farmers Market in Vancouver, elated by the discovery of tiny baskets of perfect green cucamelons. I ran over to my wife like a little kid, excitedly calling out, “They have cucamelons! Look at them! We HAVE to get some!”

But can you blame me? I mean… look at them! They’re ADORABLE. These are an easy contender for the world’s cutest vegetable (you’ll find them referred to as fruits quite often, and they are – but in the same sense that cucumbers, tomatoes, and eggplants are fruits). And biology-geek-me gets really interested in just what they are. Miniature produce is often the result of cultivation and selective breeding, but that’s not the case here; these are a species native to Central America, and completely separate from our more familiar cucumbers and gourds. Cucamelons are members of the family Cucurbitaceae, a group which includes squash, pumpkins, and watermelons, but they are believed to have been cultivated long before European contact with the inhabitants of the region. They taste rather like a cucumber, with a slightly sour, lemony flavour. The skin is somewhat tough but very thin and the flesh is fairly dense, giving them a delightful crunchy texture (I have a feeling they’d pickle beautifully).

Alright, time to reign in the produce-talk a little and get to the actual dish. Sunomono is a simple Japanese salad made with vinegar (the word basically translates to ‘vinegared things’). The ingredients can vary a great deal, but the idea is to create something light, refreshing, and flavourful, with a sweet/sour/salty balance. Sunomono is pretty popular in Japanese restaurants, and if you’ve ordered it in a few different places you might notice that the balance between those flavours can vary pretty wildly. I don’t like overly sweet sunomono, but I wanted enough depth to bring some life to the plain shirataki noodles (more on those below), so I decided to go with a sanbaizu sunomono sauce, composed of soy sauce, mirin, and rice vinegar (sanbaizu basically means three-cup-vinegar, as it traditionally mixed three parts of each ingredient). Japan has a very rich tradition pickling, and vegetables served with vinegar are popular and diverse. The vinegar sauces vary in ingredients, but I’m quite partial to sanbaizu because it balances the acidity with the sweetness of mirin. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to overwhelm the delicate veggies with the rich taste of soy, so this particular sanbaizu favours vinegar and mirin over soy sauce. Before I start descending further into culinary and etymological spirals, I’ll just cut things off by saying that it’s a great sauce, and you can tweak the ratios to your own personal tastes.

The rest of the salad (or soup… I won’t judge you if you drink the sweet vinegar) is pretty straightforward stuff, and I go into some of the ingredients below, but feel free to tweak or adapt based on the veggies you have at hand.  I do recommend finding shirataki noodles though, as they are texturally perfect for this, and completely devoid of calories.  Yes, seriously.

Recipe Notes

While this sunomono is made with some tricky-to-find ingredients, it’s easy to adapt, and if you’re in an area with a large Asian market you shouldn’t have much trouble finding at least the noodles and the green daikon. As I mentioned above, this is my personal favourite sanbaizu/sunomono base, but you can adjust the sauce components to match your personal tastes.

Cucamelons

These adorable little things are not easy to find in grocery stores, but keep your eyes open at farmer’s markets. If you can’t find them, use thinly sliced Japanese or Lebanese cucumbers plus a little bit of lemon juice. You can also adapt this for any number of other veggies, though you may find that you want to tweak the sauce to match the character of a particular ingredient.

Green Daikon

Daikon radish is the gigantic, long white radish commonly used in South and East Asian cooking. The large white variety is only one cultivar however, and there are numerous others with different flavour profiles. Watermelon radishes, much beloved by food photographers everywhere (myself included), are actually a Chinese variety of particular note. Green daikon, which is pretty easy to find in large Chinese grocery stores, is a little milder and much denser than the standard white variety, much more like the green-topped Korean variety (mu). If you can’t find it, you’ve got options. White daikon works, but has more watery flesh and a sharper mustard flavour. Red (European) radishes could work too, though they too would have a stronger flavour. Watermelon and Korean radishes would actually work very nicely too, and both are fairly similar in terms of flavour.

Shirataki Noodles

I seriously don’t understand how the everyone isn’t completely in love with these things. Shirataki noodles are like nothing else in the world, and you need to try them. They’re not made with wheat, or any grain at all; instead they’re made from the tuber of the konjac plant, which is only rendered edible through careful preparation. Shirataki and other konjac-based foods are much loved for their unique, dense-but-springy texture and the fact that they contribute almost zero calories to a meal. The noodles are primarily composed of the dietary fiber glucomannan, which is indigestible in humans. Because of this, the noodles have very little by way of flavour, but they do a great job of soaking up flavours in dishes.

Shirataki noodles can be found in Asian grocery stores, generally in the refrigerated section. They’re usually packaged in water, and you can often find them alongside other konjac-based products.

Making the Dressing

The sauce for your sunomono is simple to put together, but I’m going to strongly encourage you to do your due-diligence by learning about some of the ingredients that go into it.

Most of what gets sold as mirin outside of Japan is actually just flavoured corn syrup. It’s very sweet, lacks any alcohol (unlike true mirin), and I’m decidedly not a fan. Check out the Diversivore Pantry Page on Mirin for more information about varieties and how to choose the good stuff. If you can only get the syrupy stuff, I personally think you’re better off using a mixture of sake and sugar. The link above covers how to handle that substitution.

Light soy sauce is NOT (and this point cannot be made strongly enough) mild, or low-sodium soy sauce. Light soy sauce is lighter in COLOUR than dark soy sauce, but is actually stronger in flavour. If you’re not sure what you’re using, you can’t really go wrong with a good quality (preferably brewed) all-purpose soy sauce. I like Japanese brands for Japanese cooking, but some mellower and less assertive Chinese/Taiwanese brands work very nicely too.

Finally, a few notes about dashi. Dashi is the fundamental ‘sea-stock’ used to make an enormous variety of Japanese dishes. It’s very easy to make, but the ingredients are unfamiliar to many. In this dish, I use kombu-dashi, which is made with kombu (seaweed) only and no katsuobushi (skipjack tuna flakes). You can use standard dashi, good instant dashi (I personally don’t like the cheap MSG-heavy stuff), or simply substitute water. You lose a little bit of the briny/umami element, but it’s still amazing without it. If you do want to explore kombu and how to use it, check out my detailed guide here.


Nutrition Facts
Cucamelon Sunomono
Amount Per Serving
Calories 43 Calories from Fat 9
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 1g 2%
Saturated Fat 0.1g 1%
Polyunsaturated Fat 0.3g
Monounsaturated Fat 0.3g
Sodium 147mg 6%
Potassium 76mg 2%
Total Carbohydrates 8g 3%
Dietary Fiber 2g 8%
Sugars 4g
Protein 1g 2%
Vitamin A 2%
Vitamin C 9%
Calcium 5%
Iron 3%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

Nutritional Summary


GOOD NEWS:
Thanks to the veggies and the shirataki, this is about as low in calories as you can get. Really, there’s virtually nothing to this, yet it’s flavourful and very satisfying.

BAD NEWS:
While it’s ultra-low in calories, it’s not particularly nutrient dense. Use this dish as an appetizer before a denser, richer meal to help control hunger and portion size. If you do want to turn this into something of a light meal, swap the shirataki for bean-thread noodles.

Note: the nutritional information given above uses Japanese cucumbers instead of cucamelons. The two are quite similar, but accurate nutritional information for cucamelons doesn’t seem to be available at the moment. Please get in touch if you have more information!

Ingredient Pages

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.

Pantry Pages

  • Vegan
  • 30-minutes

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Cucamelon Sunomono made with shirataki noodles and green daikon - Diversivore.com
Cucamelon Sunomono
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Votes: 1
Rating: 5
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Rate this recipe!
Servings Prep Time
4 servings 10 minutes
Passive Time
10 minutes
Servings Prep Time
4 servings 10 minutes
Passive Time
10 minutes
Cucamelon Sunomono made with shirataki noodles and green daikon - Diversivore.com
Cucamelon Sunomono
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Votes: 1
Rating: 5
You:
Rate this recipe!
Servings Prep Time
4 servings 10 minutes
Passive Time
10 minutes
Servings Prep Time
4 servings 10 minutes
Passive Time
10 minutes
Ingredients
Servings: servings
Units:
Instructions
  1. If you're making your own dashi, do that first. I use a simple kombu dashi, without katsuobushi for this dish (see note below concerning dashi and substitutions).
  2. Optional - If you're using good mirin with a relatively high alcohol content, many like to very briefly boil it in order to cook off some of the sharp alcoholic flavour. Note that you will not actually boil off much of the alcohol itself by doing this. Simply heat a small saucepan over high heat, add the mirin, allow it to boil vigorously for 10-20 seconds, then remove it from the heat and allow it to cool somewhat before continuing.
  3. Wash and halve the cucamelons and set aside. Peel the daikon and slice into very thin rounds (a mandoline makes short work of this).
  4. Combine the dashi, rice vinegar, soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, and ginger in a small container (preferably one with a lid). Add the cucamelons and daikon and combine thoroughly (I like to do this by putting a lid on the container and shaking everything very gently). Set aside in the fridge for 10-20 minutes.
  5. To serve, place some shiritaki noodles in individual bowls (they don't need any cooking) and top with vegetables and the vinegar sauce. Garnish with a few radish greens if you like, and serve.
Recipe Notes

Dashi is simultaneously a simple ingredient and something of a complex one. To keep this recipe vegan and to give it a greener, less marine flavour, I make kombu-dashi, made with kombu (seaweed) only. You can also make a standard pescetarian dashi with kombu and katsuobushi. If you've never made your own dashi I do strongly recommend trying it, but you can also find instant dashi in Japanese grocery stores. Purchase carefully though, as the quality of ingredients varies a great deal, and many are primarily MSG. If you can't find or make dashi in any form, you can subsitute water - you lose a little bit of the depth of flavour, but the sunomono still turns out wonderfully.

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Comments

  1. Cucamelon is likely the cutest veggie ever. I’ve never had them but now I really want to find them! Thanks for introducing me to a new ingredient.

  2. What a refreshing salad — and holy crap, those cucamelons really are the most adorable vegetable I’ve ever seen! I’m a huge fan of cool noodle salads (zaru soba’s one of my favourite summer dishes), and it’s always great to add more to the repertoire. Thanks Sean!

  3. I was never into bugs or birds, but when I was younger, I wanted to save the sea turtles (and other sea creatures). I actually applied to join the marine biology program at Guelph University and I even got in. But then, I went the more obvious/common route of biochemistry and chemistry instead because marine biology seemed kinda crazy.
    Anyways… I had no idea cucamelons were a separate entity – I assumed they were a cross between cucumbers and watermelons, like pluots are a cross between plums and apricots (hopefully, I’m not mistaken about pluots too, hah!).
    Anyways, I’m definitely going to give this recipe a go, maybe this weekend even. I spotted cucamelons at the market over the weekend, so it must be meant to be 😉

  4. I’ve plastered this recipe across the internet, and how I’m wracking my brain trying to figure out where I can find these babies in Calgary. I’ve haven’t ever seen them at farmers markets, so if I can’t track them down I’m going to give this a go with Japanese or Lebanese cucumbers plus a little bit of lemon juice as per your suggestion. Either way, I’ll report back! Thanks for the recipe, Sean!

  5. Cucamelons really are the cutest vegetable. I have never actually come across these cute veggies in my grocery store or local farmers’ market, but, then again, I’ve never been looking. Next time I see them I’m making this recipe! Thanks for keeping it fresh and interesting!

  6. This is a must try since I had these tiny treats just pop up in my garden. Don’t know where they came from… maybe the garden fairies!
    I have been juicing them but will definitely try this recipe. Love your enthusiasm.

    1. Author

      Oooh, garden fairies! I like that idea. Maybe they can make an appearance around my house and help me figure out when to plant my radishes so they stop bolting. I hope the recipe worked out well for you, and thanks so much for taking the time to comment. Cheers!

  7. My cucamelons are just starting to grow. They’re not much bigger than a grain of rice, right now, lol. Once they’re all grown up, this looks like an ideal way to use them.

    1. Author

      I hope they’re a little further along now! I’ve heard they’re fairly easy to grow, so I’ve got my fingers crossed that you’ve got a great yield and lots of ideas for them. Cheers.

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