A comprehensive guide on preparing cucumber salad the Chinese way. Three cutting methods are matched with three delicious dressings. A tutorial video is also included.
Recently some of my blog readers have requested vegetarian side dishes. So today I’m sharing three Chinese cucumber salads which are perfect for the summer (or any time of the year): ① Smashed cucumber with garlic dressing/蒜蓉拍黄瓜; ② Sliced cucumber with ginger dressing/姜末黄瓜片; ③ Coir raincoat cucumber with mala dressing/麻辣蓑衣黄瓜.
The most popular veggie cold dish in China
Cucumbers are much loved by the Chinese. I would say cucumber salad is the most popular vegetarian cold dish served both in restaurants and on family dining tables. It’s such an easy dish that even a child would be able to make it. Yet every cook has their own way/ingredients to make it special.
I choose to introduce three versions that I make regularly. They involve different cutting methods and call for different dressing ingredients. But for me, they are all delicious in their own way. Like many of my comprehensive guides on the blog, I hope this post provides all you need to know on how to prepare cucumber the Chinese way.
Cut the cucumbers in three ways
The smashed version
Across China, “smashing” is no doubt the most popular way to prepare cucumber. It’s believed that this method creates irregular, rough surfaces of each piece thus helps the cucumber to absorb the seasoning more effectively.
Usually, cooks would use the side of a Chinese cleaver to execute the action.
- Place a whole cucumber on a chopping board.
- Use the side of the cleaver to bang on the cucumber from one end to the other until the flesh cracks open.
- Then cut into bitesize pieces.
I know that not everyone has a large cleaver in their kitchen. Here are my alternatives: use a rolling pin to smash instead (an empty beer bottle would work too). The result is equally satisfying.
If you are using European cucumbers which have a thicker skin and a less crunchy flesh than that of the Chinese variety, I suggest you partially peel them before smashing. This way they crack open more easily.
The sliced version
Instead of smashing, I often make the sliced version which works particularly well with large European cucumbers which I have easy access to. Not only are those long, semi-transparent strips good-looking, they also create more surface to absorb the dressing. It’s super simple to do:
- Using a vegetable peeler, slice the cucumber lengthways. Stop when the seedy part appears.
- Turn 90 degrees and continue slicing. Repeat to slice all sides.
At the end of the peeling process, you will be left with the juicy, seedy part of the cucumber which can’t be sliced with a peeler. But don’t waste any! I always give it to my children for a snack. It’s so delicious on its own.
The “Coir raincoat” style
Try “Coir Raincoat Cucumber/蓑衣黄瓜” if you like a knife-skill challenge and want to impress your family or dinner party guests. Originating from Shandong cuisine/鲁菜, this delicately sliced cucumber dish is named after the traditional Chinese coir raincoat which is made from straw and has multiple fine layers (My children call them worm/caterpillar cucumbers though).
Two steps to follow (Please refer to my tutorial video in the recipe card below):
- Thinly slice DIAGONALLY to a depth of approximately halfway through the cucumber from one end to the other.
- Turn over to the other side. Slice at RIGHT ANGLES to the same depth throughout.
Cucumbers cut this way create maximum surface area to soak up the seasoning effectively. It requires a little attention to detail & patience with the knife work. But the result is so rewarding! Here are three tips to help you succeed:
- I like using baby cucumbers for this dish. However, I suggest you give it a try firstly on larger cucumbers, then slice smaller ones when you get the hang of it.
- Always remember to sharpen your knife beforehand. It makes the work much easier.
- Use the knife tip as a guide to depth. That means holding the knife steadily at an angle of approximately 30 degrees to the chopping board. Only the tip of your knife touches the surface for each slice.
Three delicious dressings
There are many ways to season Chinese cucumber salad. I choose to share three of my favourite dressings. They all provide a refreshing taste with some degree of tanginess. For my recipe and tutorial video, I match each cutting method with one particular dressing. However, please feel free to make your own combination. Every mix & match scenario works fine.
The Garlic Dressing
I always have plenty of garlic in stock. Do you? For most classic Chinese cold dishes, it’s an essential ingredient. My garlic dressing for cucumber salad can be used for other dishes too, for example as a dumpling dipping sauce. Here is what you need:
- Garlic. You may mince it in a mortar or with a garlic presser. If you own a Chinese cleaver, smash the garlic cloves then finely chop.
- Fresh chillies. I love using bird’s eye chillies which are intense in heat (very similar to Chinese Xiao Mi La/小米辣). Please feel free to use any chilli pepper that suits your level of spice tolerance.
- Scallions. You can use coriander instead.
- Cooking oil. Heat it up then pour over the garlic, chilli and scallions. This method enhances the flavour of these three ingredients making the dressing more aromatic.
- Soy sauce. You may use regular soy sauce or the light version
- Black rice vinegar. Zhen Jiang Xiang Cu/镇江香醋 is a great brand.
- Sugar for a hint of sweetness.
- Salt. Add a pinch if necessary.
The ginger dressing
This is the simplest dressing of the three. Mix all the ingredients. Done! To make it tastier, leave it to infuse for a short while before adding to the cucumber. This ginger dressing works well with a variety of vegetables. I often use it to dress my spinach & soybean salad.
- Ginger. Scrape off the skin then mince with a knife.
- Honey. I love the flavour combination of ginger and honey. You may replace it with regular sugar.
- Black rice vinegar & soy sauce. My preferred ratio is 3:2.
- Sesame oil. It adds a lovely nutty aroma. Make sure you use Chinese style toasted sesame oil instead of the pale coloured raw sesame oil.
- Toasted sesame seeds. They provide an extra nutty taste and a pretty look as a garnish.
- Coriander. Omit it if you aren’t a fan.
- Salt. Add a pinch if necessary.
If you are into Sichuan cuisine, you definitely know what MALA stands for. If you have no idea what it refers to, here is my short explanation: Mala/麻辣, meaning numbing & spicy, is a unique flavour combination created by Sichuan pepper/花椒 and dried chillies. You need to give it a try if you enjoy bold, exciting flavours. Here is what you need:
- Light soy sauce. Use it to provide saltiness instead of salt.
- Sugar. Together with soy sauce, it increases the umami taste of the dish.
- Ground Sichuan pepper. Read my ultimate guide to Sichuan pepper. If possible, use freshly ground powder instead of the shop-bought version. Check out my other post if you don’t know how to grind Sichuan pepper properly.
- Chilli powder/chilli flakes. I’m often asked by readers “what type of chilli powder/chilli flakes to use”. My answer is simple: any type that suits your tolerance for spiciness as long as they are purely made of chillies instead of being mixed with other ingredients.
- Toasted sesame seeds.
- Cooking oil. Like the garlic dressing, you need to heat up the oil then pour it over the spices and sesame seeds.
One extra tip: I highly recommend that you make and store a jar of homemade Chinese chilli oil. Use it as a quick alternative for this mala dressing (to replace ground Sichuan pepper, chilli powder/chilli flakes, sesame seeds & oil)
Extra tips for a better taste
Cucumbers have a very high content of water (about 95%). If you season the cucumber salad with a salty dressing then leave to rest for a while, you would see quite a lot of liquid extracted from them. Therefore the dressing would be diluted and tastes less intense.
To create a better taste for your cucumber salad, sometimes you may wish to follow one of these tips:
- Discard the seedy part in the middle.
- Don’t add the dressing until the moment you are ready to serve the dish.
- After cutting, mix the cucumber with salt/soy sauce then let it sit for 10 minutes or so. Then discard the extracted liquid before adding the seasoning sauce.
Chinese cucumber salad, three ways (黄瓜三吃)
Option 1: Smashed cucumber salad
Option 2: Sliced cucumber salad
For option 1: Smashed cucumber salad
- Partially peel the skin of the cucumber.
- Use the side of a cleaver to smash the cucumber (Alternatively, you may use a rolling pin). Cut the smashed cucumber into bitesize pieces.
- Add the salt. Mix and leave to rest for 10 mins. Then discard the liquid extracted from the cucumber.
- Add scallions, garlic & fresh chillies. Heat up the oil then pour it over.
- Add soy sauce, black rice vinegar, sugar.
- Cover the bowl with a plate. Shake to mix for 10 seconds. Transfer to a serving bowl/plate.
For option 2: Sliced cucumber salad
- Slice the cucumber lengthways with a vegetable peeler. Stop when the seedy part appears.
- Turn 90 degrees and continue slicing. Repeat to slice all sides.
- Put into a salad bowl (exclude the seedy part). Add radish slices.
- Mix all the other ingredients in a small bowl.
- Right before serving, pour the dressing over. Toss with chopsticks.
For option 3: Coir raincoat cucumber salad
- For the cutting technique, please refer to the tutorial video below.
- Using the tip of the knife as a guide to depth. Thinly slice diagonally to a depth of approximately halfway through the cucumber from one end to the other.
- Turn over to the other side. Slice at right angles to the same depth throughout.
- Mix soy sauce and sugar in a serving bowl/plate. Place cucumbers on top. Leave to rest for 10 mins (toss around halfway). Then discard all the liquid.
- Put ground Sichuan pepper, chilli powder & toasted sesame seed on top of the cucumbers.
- Pour hot oil over the spices. Toss gently then serve (See note 2).
Hope you find my Chinese cucumber salad recipes inspiring. If you have time, why not give each one a try. Let me know which cutting method or dressing is the most appealing to you!