My friend Katie Sullivan Morford of Afghan Cooking Unveiled is a writer and mom to three beautiful girls. She recently asked me , "So if you’re planning on making a meal of Asian dumplings, what can you serve on the side?" A whole host of goodies was my response. This little cucumber salad is one that I frequently whip up. It’s crunchy, tangy, and has a garlicky bite that’s perfect alongside the chewy richness of dumplings such as pot stickers, poached water dumplings (jiaozi) and fried spring rolls. The cucumber provides nice textural contrast. Plus, it’s served cold so there’s a cooling effect as well.
I first ordered this dish as an accompaniment to Shanghai soup dumplings. The restaurant’s preparation was kind of crude in that they left the seeds in the cucumber and there was so much garlic that suffice it to say, I was glad that my husband and I had been together for decades! This isn’t quite a dish for first dates. At home, I researched the recipe in my library and came across a similar dish called “Smacked Cucumbers” in Fuschia Dunlop’s inspiring Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province. Her Hunan recipe called for whacking the cucumbers with the side of a heavy cleaver so as to open up the pores in the cucumbers and help them soak up the flavors. Interesting but not attractive is what I found out when I tried the technique. And the seeds were never removed in Dunlop’s recipe just like at the restaurant.
Perhaps that’s a Chinese tradition, but I prefer to seed my cucumbers, and depending on the type of cucumber, peel it. In the photo above, I used pickling (Kirby) cucumbers which have a tough skin so I took a zebra approach to peeling. With more tender Persians and English cucumbers, you may not want to peel.
Chilled Cucumber with Garlic
Chilling the cucumbers mellows their flavor. You can make the cucumbers up to 4 hours in advance of serving. I use homemade chile oil (see Asian Dumplings, page 216 for the recipe) and scoop up some of the chile flakes for extra flavor.
Serves 4 as a side dish
1 pound pickling, Persian, or English cucumber
1/2 teaspoon plus 1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped and mashed to a paste
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
2 to 3 teaspoons unseasoned rice vinegar, optional
1 teaspoon chile oil (homemade or purchased) or sesame oil
1. Peel the cucumber, if you like. Then trim the ends and split lengthwise. Remove the seeds with a teaspoon. Then cut the cucumber halves on the diagonal into 1/2-inch thick pieces. Put into a bowl and toss with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Set aside for 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, whisk together the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, garlic, sugar, peanut oil, vinegar and chile oil. Taste and adjust the flavors to end up with a garlicky, rich, tangy, savory finish. Set the dressing aside.
3. Rinse and drain the cucumber well. Grab it by the handfuls and give the cucumber a gentle squeeze to expel a little excess water. Add the squeezed cucumber to the dressing.
4. Chill well before transferring to a plate and serving. (Or slide into the freezer for 8 to 10 minutes to hasten the chilling.)
There are many ways to tweak this recipe, for example, using chile sauce instead of chile oil. If you tweak it, do share your innovation. We'd all love to hear about your kitchen experiments!