Cracked with force and seasoned with bold flavours, Chinese smashed cucumber salad is a quick, fun and refreshing dish to make.
What is smashed cucumber
Like Tomato & Egg Stir-fry, Egg Fried Rice and many other quick & easy Chinese dishes, Smashed Cucumber Salad (Pāi Huáng Guā/拍黄瓜) is popular nationwide in China (not just in Sichuan cuisine). You can find it on family dinner tables, in small street cafes and in upscale restaurants.
The basic idea of the dish is to smash a whole cucumber hard, usually with the side of a cleaver, and then cut it into small pieces before seasoning it with a tangy, savoury dressing.
Regional variations exist. But no matter how the flavour combinations differ, they all share the same “smashing” feature.
Before I explain all elements of the dish, I’d like to point out a few tips to help you make the best-tasting smashed cucumber salad.
- Pick the freshest cucumber for a crispy texture
- Salt the cucumber before dressing
- Let it rest for a couple of minutes after seasoning
- Spice it up with good quality chilli oil
Which type of cucumber
In China, cucumbers used in this salad are usually dark-coloured, thin-skinned and have spiky bumps (as shown in the image below that I took on one of my Culinary Tours of China). They’re much crispier than the regular cucumber found in the UK.
However, other types of cucumber work for this recipe too, such as English cucumber, Persian cucumber, Kirby cucumber, American cucumber, etc. If the one you use has a waxy coating or a very thick, chewy skin, I suggest you peel it first.
Regardless of the type, freshness is a critical factor to consider. The fresher a cucumber is the better it tastes and the crunchier the texture. When picking the cucumbers, feel their firmness with your fingers. If they yield when pinched, they probably aren’t fresh enough.
Why and how to smash
What is the purpose of smashing? You may wonder. According to my dad who always makes cucumber salad this way, “Because it’s a fast way to turn a whole cucumber into small pieces.”
Besides my dad’s practical intention, I think the reason behind it is similar to why Chinese cooks tear cabbage leaves, instead of cutting them with a knife. The smashing action creates natural cracks leaving uneven surfaces that are better at absorbing seasonings than flat surfaces cut by knives.
To smash a cucumber, Chinese chefs and home cooks would use a cleaver. If you don’t have one, use a rolling pin or a meat pounder (meat mallet) instead.
Lay the cucumber flat on a sturdy chopping board. Use the side of the cleaver to hit it. The cucumber will naturally split lengthways into 3 or 4 parts. Then cut it crosswise into bite-sized pieces.
By the way, I don’t remove the seeds before seasoning as they are tasty and nutritious (Little food waste happens in a Chinese kitchen).
How to make the dish
Step 1: salt the cucumber
After you smash and chop the cucumber into small pieces, transfer them into a bowl (a large one will make tossing in the late step easier). Sprinkle a good amount of salt then mix to coat the cucumber evenly. Leave to rest for about 10 minutes.
While resting, the cucumber will sweat. Some of the water will be extracted and the salty taste will go into the flesh. Before seasoning, remember to drain off the liquid.
This process isn’t compulsory (I skip it when I’m in a hurry). That said, I do recommend you do so if time permits, as I find the salted version tastes a little better.
Step 2: make a dressing
To season smashed cucumber, you only need a few common Chinese condiments.
- Soy sauce. It provides a savoury and umami taste to the dish. Use the light version (Shēng Chōu/生抽) or the regular one that’s simply labelled as soy sauce. Dark soy sauce (Lǎo Chōu/老抽) isn’t suitable for cold dishes like this one.
- Black rice vinegar. It’s indispensable for my version of smashed cucumber. Tandy and fragrant, it adds more depth to the flavour. Chinkiang (Zhenjiang) vinegar (镇江香醋) is one of the best varieties that can be easily found in Chinese stores.
- Sesame oil. Commonly used in Chinese cold dishes, it provides a distinctive aroma and a nutty flavour which effectively elevate the general taste. Make sure you use the Asian/Chinese type which is made from toasted sesame seeds and has an amber colour.
- Garlic. Mince some fresh garlic and mix it with the seasonings. If you adore the flavour of ginger, add a little too.
- Sugar. It’s added to enhance the umami taste. A pinch would be enough. You may replace it with a drop of honey or omit it altogether.
- Chili oil. Chinese smashed cucumber salad isn’t always dressed with chili oil. But I highly recommend you include it. Read more about how to make it yourself in later sections.
- Sichuan pepper oil (optional). A condiment made of Sichuan pepper, it adds a pleasant numbing effect on your palate.
🛎 Gluten-free substitutes: Use gluten-free soy sauce or tamari to replace light soy sauce. Substitute black rice vinegar, which contains wheat, with other gluten-free vinegar, or fresh lime/lemon juice.
Step 3: season and mix
After salting and draining, add all the seasoning ingredients to the cucumber. Give everything a good toss to ensure the seasonings are evenly distributed.
For a better taste, I suggest you let it sit for a couple of minutes before serving. This allows the flavour to penetrate further into the vegetable. That said, do not leave it for too long though as the crispiness will be reduced over time.
What to serve with
Smashed cucumber salad appears on our dinner table very often. Usually, I include it in a typical Chinese dinner for four consisting of a cold dish like this one, two to three hot dishes (stir-fries, braised or steamed dishes, soups, etc.) and some staples.
Alternatively, prepare a bigger portion and serve this salad as a side dish for Western-style meals. It also makes a great accompaniment to barbeque food. When in China, I always order it when having Xinjiang-style grilled lamb skewers.
Make your own chili oil
What type of chilli oil to use? You may ask. The most common one used in this dish is the classic Chinese chili oil that’s made with dried chili and oil infused with aromatics and spices. My favourite ought to be the homemade version, a must-have condiment in my kitchen.
If you haven’t made it, this is a good opportunity to try it. Apart from being added to smashed cucumber, it makes so many dishes extra delicious. You can use it to:
- Make dipping sauces for dumplings
- Spice up rice dishes, e.g. pork fried rice
- Season noodle dishes, e.g. Dan Dan noodles
- Add a kick to soups, e.g. wonton soup
- Dress cold appetisers, e.g. Sichuan mouthwatering chicken
- Spread over steamed buns, scallion pancakes, etc.
Otherwise, use any other types of chili oil you’ve already got in the pantry. Test a few times with different versions, then you’ll find the best variety and the right quantity that suits your taste the best.
A: It can be a little messy as some water and bits would splash out when smashing. The solution is to slide the cucumber into a plastic bag and then hit it.
A: Yes! I have another blog post featuring three cucumber salads with different cutting methods and dressings (including another version of smashed cucumber).
Other appetizers to try
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Smashed Cucumber Salad (拍黄瓜)
- Place cucumber onto a chopping board. Use the side of a cleaver, or a rolling pin/a meat pounder, to smash it. Make sure the pressure is enough to crack it open by one stroke, instead of pounding it multiple times on one spot. Then cut it crosswise into bite-sized pieces.
- Transfer the cucumber to a bowl. Sprinkle evenly with salt. Leave to rest for 10 minutes or so. Then drain away the water extracted by the salt (see note).
- Add light soy sauce, black rice vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, minced garlic, chilli oil and Sichuan pepper oil if using. Toss very well to evenly distribute the seasonings.
- Enjoy it right away or let it sit for 2 minutes before serving (The flavour will penetrate further into the cucumber).
NUTRITION DISCLOSURE: Nutritional information on this website is provided as a courtesy to readers. It should be considered estimates. Please use your own brand nutritional values or your preferred nutrition calculator to double check against our estimates.