This cold appetizer is an extreme balance of yin and yang: cold, crisp cucumbers (yin) marinated with garlic and numbing-hot spices (yang). It’s kind of like Manhattan in the summer, when temperatures outside reach a stuffy ninety degrees but indoors, air conditioners chill you to the bone (or, if you’re in Brooklyn, someone unscrews a fire hydrant that splashes every passer-by).
The contradictions continue in this simple salad recipe, where the seasonings are clearly Sichuan, but I’ve chosen to use a cucumber variety unique to the Middle East. You don’t have to use Persian cucumbers to make this salad, but they’re so dense and crunchy, with less water content to absorb the seasonings more, that I couldn’t resist them at the market.
Persian cucumbers have become less rare a sight in gourmet groceries or from small farms specializing in heirloom crops in the last couple years. With thin, deep green skins and small seed pockets, they’re similar to English cucumbers, only usually much smaller. I grabbed these fine, curled few from Stokes Farm’s stand at Union Square Greenmarket last week, and they’ve been chilling in this reddish liquid in my fridge since. The perfect snack to revive your senses on a hot, lazy day, or party appetizer to add color to any spread.
They’re easy to make, but require a few seasonings to dial in the Sichuan-style preparation: most importantly, red chili oil, usually made with sesame oil (read the ingredients), and Sichuan peppercorns, for that numbing touch. Like most Chinese foods, there is no “one right way” to make this cold cucumber salad. But I detect a hint of sweetness in most of the versions I’ve tried at Sichuan restaurants, so dissolved some sugar in rice vinegar to start out.
If using regular cucumbers, you might want to press some of their juices out after chopping them, since the wateriness can make the sauce less potent. You might want to scoop out the seed pockets entirely, and peel them first to remove that rubbery, green skin. I did none of the above with the Persian cucumbers I was using, and love the color (and nutrients) their delicate peels add to the salad. For extra saltiness, I added a dab of hot bean paste (douban jiang) to the marinade, which is a typical Sichuan condiment made from fermented soy beans and chili (it’s a must-have in ma po tofu).
This salad tastes great after it’s been soaking for a day, and I was impressed by how well the Persian cucumbers retained their crunch after a few more. Vibrant and tingly, they’re fun to snack on or serve with grilled meats at your next barbecue.
Spicy Sichuan Cucumber Salad with Persian Cucumbers
(makes 3-4 small side servings)
4 Persian cucumbers, sliced to 1/8-1/4″ slices
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup rice vinegar
3-4 tablespoons chili-infused sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon hot bean paste (or “chili bean sauce”)
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns, crushed
In a saucepan, heat the vinegar and stir in the sugar and salt until completely dissolved. Combine the chili oil and bean paste in a mixing bowl and toss in the cucumber slices and garlic; stir to combine. Pour the rice vinegar over mixture and toss thoroughly. Cover and chill at least 6 hours before serving, or overnight. Sprinkle the crushed Sichuan peppercorns on top for serving.
(for 3-4 side servings)
4 Persian cucumbers (at $3/lb): $3.00
1/2 cup rice vinegar: $0.60
1 tablespoon sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt: $0.15
3-4 tablespoons red chili oil: $0.75
2 cloves garlic: $0.20
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns: $0.20
1 teaspoon hot bean paste: $0.20
Five brownie points: This is a somewhat oily salad, but it’s all plant-based and incredibly lively on the palate. Leaving the skins on cucumbers means getting more vitamins from the plant, such as Vitamin K, and fresh garlic is an immune-booster. Also, vinegar aids digestion, and there’s plenty of it in this recipe.
Five maple leaves: It’s a great time to grab fresh garlic and cucumbers just in season from local organic farms. Cucumbers are often peeled not just because their skins are tough, but because of pesticides that linger on them when not grown organically. Best to keep ‘em on, and get them from a farm you trust. The seasonings in this dish are instead imported, Asian condiments that I find essential to my pantry; they last a while and go a long way in adding flavor to foods when used in small quantity, though.