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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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