The difference between a sliced cucumber salad and a smashed cucumber salad reveals itself on first bite.
Sliced cucumbers have a smooth, impenetrable surface, and when you introduce them to dressing, they usually shrug it off. By contrast, smashed cucumbers are wide open: Their craggy edges and rough surfaces absorb flavors and form relationships in seconds.
Smashing (or smacking) cucumbers for salad is a standard technique in many parts of Asia.
Here’s the technique: With one hand, lay the blade of a knife flat on top of the cucumber, with the cucumber resting under the widest part of the blade. The heel of the other hand comes down sharply on the blade, as though smashing a garlic clove to remove its peel. (Alternatively, a wooden mallet or rolling pin can be used, as they are in Japan, or a heavy spatula.)
Once smashed, the cucumbers are roughly sliced or broken up with the hands — even better for removing the watery seeds — then sprinkled with salt and briefly set aside. This process softens the skin, firms the flesh and turns the peel a bright and appetizing green. It’s important to use fresh, firm-fleshed cucumbers; old, soft ones will turn to mush.
The Chinese staple cucumber salad, pai huang gua, is dressed with a vinaigrette of soy sauce, rice or black vinegar, garlic and sesame oil. In the North and West, chilies and sometimes Sichuan peppercorns are often added.
Rinse cucumbers and pat dry. Cut crosswise into pieces about 4 inches long. Cut each piece in half lengthwise. Lay a piece of cucumber (or several) cut side down. Lay the blade of a large knife flat on top of the cucumber and smash down lightly with your other hand. The skin will begin to crack, the flesh will break down and the seeds will separate. Repeat until the whole piece is smashed. Break or slice diagonally into bite-size pieces, leaving the seeds behind.
Place cucumber pieces in a strainer and toss with a big pinch of salt and a big pinch of sugar. Place a plastic bag filled with ice on top as a weight and place strainer over bowl. Let drain 15 to 30 minutes on the counter, or in the refrigerator until ready to serve, up to 4 hours.
To make dressing: In a small bowl, combine salt, sugar and rice vinegar. Stir until salt and sugar are dissolved. Stir in sesame oil and soy sauce.
When ready to serve, shake cucumbers well to drain any remaining liquid and transfer to serving bowl. Drizzle with grapeseed or olive oil and toss. Add half the dressing, half the garlic and the red pepper flakes to taste, and toss. Keep adding dressing until cucumbers are well coated but not drowned. Taste and add more pepper flakes and garlic if needed. Serve immediately, garnished with cilantro and sesame seeds. Serves 4-6.
Nutritional information unavailable.