Recipe for the smashed cucumber salad (拍黄瓜 pāi huángguā)
For the past few weeks the thermometers in Beijing have been reading temperatures over 30°C. Although there have been a few sporadic storms, a scorching heat has been the norm. Naturally, I have spent less time in the kitchen and have rather sought the comfortable shelter of an air-conditioned cool room. It is just not the time to prepare elaborated creations that call for long-simmered stews, heavy soups, puff pastries or tempered chocolate. My last batch of puff pastry came out barely decent, and that was only because I did the folding late at night. Fresher and lighter meals are what most of us crave; and so, cold dishes are a lovely option.
You asked me in your previous letter which Chinese food is my favorite and I have to say that from the vast universe of dishes this country has to offer -impossible to enumerate even if one tried- I like these the most. I feel they are underrated and probably the least known outside of China. Next time you go to your favorite Chinese restaurant back there, please check and see how many will you actually find. I sure couldn’t find many during my last trip to Ecuador.
Vegetables are served raw with special dressings, like longleaf lettuce(油麦菜 yóumàicài), celtuce (莴笋wōsǔn) or kohlrabi (苤蓝piělan). They can be cooked, then cooled and seasoned accordingly, as water chesnuts (马蹄mǎtí), lilly bulbs (百合bǎihé) or lotus roots (藕ǒu). They can also be transformed using one of the many preservation methods giving as a result salty, sweet, sweet and sour or spicy pickles, like the dried radish with green soybean (萝卜干毛豆 luóbo gān máodòu). Cold dishes can also be meat based as the chicken in chili oil (口水鸡 kǒu shuǐ jī), pig’s ears in red oil (紅油豬耳hóng yóu zhū ěr), marinated duck tongues (卤水鸭舌lǔshuǐ yā shé), Dai-style cold chicken (鬼鸡guǐjī) or other cold cuts. Sometimes, although I think less frequently, they can comprise seafood like in the smoked fish in soy sauce Shanghai style (上海熏青鱼Shànghǎi xūn qīngyú), marinated jellyfish and Chinese cabbage in vinaigrette (白菜心拌蜇头 báicài xīn bàn zhétóu), whelks and cucumber (拌海螺 bàn hǎiluó) or sliced kelp in garlic sauce (蒜茸海带丝 suànróng hǎidài sī).
Many are starch based: fern root noodles (蕨根粉jué gēn fěn), rice noodles (米粉mǐfěn), konjac root threads (魔芋móyù), jellies and noodles made out of mung beans, sweet potato or peas starches (凉粉liángfěn), wheat starch (凉粉liángpí), or wheat gluten (麵筋miàn jīn). Others feature the versatile tofu: tofu threads (豆腐丝dòufu sī), silken tofu (冷奴lěngnú), tofu skin (腐竹 fǔ zhú) or smoked tofu (香干xiānggān).
The selection is impressive. In restaurants they are often found in the first section of the menus and are quickly brought to the table as appetizers. Moreover, Ayi has told me that they make a marvelous accompaniment when drinking alcohol-her husband’s favorite being pickled chicken feet and duck tongues. I have a soft spot for all the vegetable based cold dishes, which are usually dressed with vinegar, sesame oil, chilies, soy sauce, sugar, salt, fresh coriander, spring onion; and, an almost insane quantity of raw garlic (but I think we can agree that a bit of raw garlic hasn’t hurt anybody).
Today I am preparing a smashed cucumber salad (拍黄瓜pāihuángguā), with a little twist, namely an addition of sesame paste. I add some Sichuan pepper powder, but if you don’t have the condiment, you can go ahead and just heat the peppercorns in oil in order to extract its flavor. I am attaching the recipe in a separate card, so you can keep it and give it a try when you feel nostalgic of the good old Beijing times.
Please send some pictures and write soon.
SMASHED CUCUMBER SALAD
fresh cucumbers (1kg)
5-6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Green onions (30 gr), finely chopped
Coriander, leafs and stalks (30 gr), finely chopped
2 tsp chili powder
½ tsp Sichuan pepper powder
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
2 tbsp. sesame paste
½ cup water
2 dried chilies
4 fresh chilies
½ cup oil
2 tbsp. light soy sauce
2 tbsp. black vinegar
1 tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
½ tbsp. sesame oil
2 tbsp. toasted sesame seeds
Smash the cucumbers with a cleaver (or the flat side of a large knife) and then cut them in bite-sized pieces. The cracked pieces have an irregular texture which will help them absorb the dressing. In a large bowl, mix the smashed cucumbers with salt and leave for 10 minutes.
In a smaller bowl, combine the finely cut garlic, Sichuan pepper powder and the fresh and dried chilies.
In another bowl dissolve the sesame paste with water. The amount of water will depend on the consistency of the paste. I added half a cup of cold water in order to get a more liquid consistency.
Meanwhile, preheat a wok on medium-high heat, then lower the heat and add the oil and the Sichuan peppercorns. Continue stirring for a couple of minutes until the oil has absorbed the flavors of the spices and then toss the peppercorns aside. Using a ladle pour the sizzling oil over the garlic mix. Add salt, sugar, the light soy sauce and vinegar. Mix well until all the ingredients are incorporated. Add the sesame paste and sesame oil. Mix well.
Drain the cucumbers, pour the dressing, mix well and garnish with sesame seeds, fresh spring onions and coriander.