Smashed, not sliced, cucumbers
Crisp texture with few seeds
A complexly flavored dressing
My longtime definition of cucumber salad—cool, crisp slices tossed with a tangy vinaigrette or a sour cream dressing—was recently upended when, at a Sichuan restaurant, I was presented with a plate of large, craggy, skin-on cucumber pieces sparingly coated with dressing. The cukes had a crunchy, almost pickle-like texture and hinted at garlic and sesame, with mild acidity and touches of sweetness and salinity. The simple preparation was an ideal accompaniment to the rich, spicy food.
The dish, called pai huang gua, is easy to make. Smash the cukes with a skillet or rolling pin (or, as is traditional, with the flat side of a Chinese cleaver). Once they’re smashed, tear them into rough pieces and briefly salt them to expel excess water. Finally, dress the chunks with a quick vinaigrette of soy sauce, vinegar, minced garlic, and sesame oil.
Why smash the cukes? I found a couple of reasons. The first was speed. When I treated equal amounts of smashed versus chopped cucumbers with salt and measured the amount of liquid each batch exuded, the smashed cucumbers were crisp and had lost about 5 percent of their water weight after only 15 minutes. It took the chopped cucumbers four times as long to shed the same amount of water.The neatest way to smash cucumbers: Cut the cucumbers into thirds and place them in a zipper-lock bag before gently pounding them with a small skillet or rolling pin.
The second benefit was textural. Smashing breaks up the vegetable in a haphazard way that exposes more surface area than chopping or slicing, so more vinaigrette can adhere. A colleague compared dressing smooth-cut cucumbers to spilling water on a laminate floor—virtually nothing was absorbed. The smashed cucumbers, on the other hand, acted like a shag carpet, sucking up almost every drop.
As for the best type of cuke, I dismissed American cucumbers, finding their thick, wax-coated skins too tough. That left nearly seedless English cucumbers, pickling cucumbers, or small Persian cucumbers. All had thin, crisp skins, but the pickling type can have a lot of seeds and the Persian type lacked a thick layer of flesh and was therefore missing the refreshing crispness of the English variety, my ultimate choice.
Regarding the dressing, soy sauce, garlic, and toasted sesame oil provided a complex base that I accented with sugar, but what really made it special was Chinese black vinegar, which is made by fermenting rice.
Finally, I whipped up a spicy chili oil for drizzling when serving the cucumbers with a mild entrée. And there I had it: my version of pai huang gua.
Keys to Success
Smashed, not sliced, cucumbersSmashing the cukes is easier than cutting them with a knife, but it has other benefits, too. When salted, the smashed cucumbers shed water four times faster than cucumbers that had been sliced. Plus, the irregular shapes held on to the dressing better.
Crisp texture with few seedsThe seeds of English cucumbers are small and insignificant and their skins are thin yet crisp, so they’re an absolute must for this recipe.
A complexly flavored dressingChinese black vinegar adds a complex fruitiness to the dressing without being overly acidic. A little sugar adds subtle sweetness.