Learn How to Make Smacked Cucumber Salad and Never be Short of the Perfect Side Dish
What meal in China is complete without a plate of tangy, garlicky smacked cucumber salad, or pai huanggua? Many will associate this dish most fondly with summer evenings spent outside Beijing's many fly-by-night chuan'r bars, where its vinegared sauce provides a counterpoint to skewers of richly spiced lamb (and, if you believe in that sort of thing, acts as a cooling, or 'yin,' food). In fact, the dish is not exclusive to Beijing, popping up across many of China's cuisines with slightly adjusted flavorings – more sugar on the eastern coast, chili and Sichuan pepper in Sichuan and Hunan.
The secret of this dish lies in "smacking" the cucumber (not a euphemism), which allows the flavors of the sauce to mix fully with the vegetable. Note that you don't want to completely pulverize it, just break it up enough that cracks appear on the surface. It seems that this technique is so effective that the NYT ran a piece last year detailing its use at Japanese and Mexican restaurants, and even burger joints, across New York.
For this recipe, I turned, as is so often the case, to Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice. The book gives recipes for both spicy and sweet and sour versions, but since I was already cooking a number of spicy dishes, I went with the latter.
Smacked cucumber with vinegar and garlic
pāi huángguā 拍黄瓜
- 1-2 cucumbers (黄瓜)
- 1/2 tsp salt (食用盐)
- 1 tbsp garlic, finely chopped (蒜)
- 2 tsp caster sugar (白砂糖)
- 2 tsp Chinkiang vinegar (镇江香醋)
- 1 tsp light soy sauce (生抽)
Put the cucumber on a chopping board and smack it a few times with a rolling pin or the flat side of a cleaver. Don't smash it to pieces – you just want to start seeing cracks appear along the surface. Then, holding your knife at an angle to the chopping board, slice the cucumber on the diagonal into 1/2-1cm slices.
In a bowl, mix the cucumber with the salt and leave to sit for 10 minutes to draw some of the water out of the cucumber.
Stir together all the remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Drain the cucumber, pour over the sauce, and serve right away, otherwise the cucumber will go soggy.
1. If you want to make a spicy version, reduce the sugar and vinegar to 1/2 tsp, and add 2 tbsp chili oil (my personal preference is for Laoganma) and a pinch of ground Sichuan pepper.
2. If you don't like a very strong garlic flavor, leave the garlic in slightly larger chunks.
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Photos: Robynne Tindall