Sichuan Cucumber Three Ways: Hot-and-Sour, Mala and Sesame (Pai Huang Gua)
Cool as a (Spicy) Cucumber~~
Sichuan knows how to treat a cucumber: with spice! Here are three cucumber preparations, using three different forms of chili pepper, and resulting in three very different tastes. The first is hot-and-sour and similar to a Western quick pickle with the addition of pickled or fresh red chilies. The second is mala, the smacked cucumber smacking strongly of that incomparable toasty chili and tingly Sichuan pepper taste that makes mala so addictive. And the third is so flavor-packed with chili oil, sesame paste and yacai preserved vegetable that it makes you wonder why you never thought to combine these things with cucumber before.
Yet despite the spice, somehow they all manage to remain cool cucumbers.
We eat the hot-and-sour cucumber pickle as a garnish for bao or an acid offset to a fatty dish such as hong shao rou. The other two cucumber dishes are called pai huang gua, or smashed cucumber salad, and are powerful enough to act as substantial side dishes.
So let’s get started. First you’ll need English cucumbers, which are relatively seedless but you’ll still want to scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Partially peel each half in stripes with a vegetable peeler. For the hot-and-sour recipe, cut the halves in thin, half-moon slices. This is easiest done with a mandolin if you have one. The other two recipes use smashed cucumbers. Just smack them on the back with a rolling pin or large knife to break the skin and fibers and allow them to absorb more sauce.
For any of the Sichuan cucumber recipes, you’ll want to salt the cut pieces and let them drain in a colander to remove some bitterness and water from the cucumbers and partially “cook” them. In my testing, I tried at first to skip this step, and the sauce became too watery and diluted and the cucumbers were a little bitter. So give yourself half an hour or more to salt the cucumbers. It also makes for a nicer texture.
The mala cucumbers have just a touch of white rice vinegar, but are mostly sauced with a bit of heated oil flavored with chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. I used small, hot chilies for this, but you could use larger, milder ones and snip them in half. Don’t be chintzy with the peppers or Sichuan pepper, however, as you want a strong flavor to do the cucumber justice.
While it would be lovely to retain the bright red color of the chilies in the final dish, you really need to cook the chilies and Sichuan pepper enough to release their full fragrance and toasty flavor. Be careful not to burn them though. When the oil is hot and fragrant, pour it over your bowl of cucumbers and mix well.
For the sesame cucumbers, you’ll need a couple of specialty items, namely Chinese sesame paste and the Sichuanese preserved mustard green stems called suimi yacai. This is a fantastically unique combination along with some rice vinegar and fresh garlic.
I adapted the sesame cucumber recipe from Chinese cuisine authority Fuchsia Dunlop; it appears as a variant of her smacked cucumber recipe in Every Grain of Rice. It’s far too special, however, to be seen as a second choice—especially after it gets a drizzle of homemade chili oil.
I’ll admit now that these three recipes show my bias, since the most popular cucumber dish in China is probably smashed with lots of fresh garlic. But since no one in my family likes to eat too much raw garlic—we prefer our spice in the form of chili pepper, as you can tell—I’ll direct you to Maggie’s recipe at Omnivore’s Cookbook for the classic pai huang gua with garlic.
- 1 medium English cucumber, about 11 ounces, or two cups chopped
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 or 2 fresh or pickled red chilies, thinly sliced
- ¼ cup Chinese white rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons water
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon Chinese white rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
- 6-8 dried red chilies, left whole or snipped in half and retaining their seeds for extra heat, depending on the heat of your chilies and your desired heat
- ½ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons suimi yacai
- 1 tablespoon Chinese sesame paste
- 1 tablespoon Chinese white rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- ½ teaspoon minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons chili oil with flakes
- For any of the three recipes, prepare cucumber by using a vegetable peeler or knife to partially skin the cucumber with vertical stripes. Scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Cut the cucumber in half vertically. For the hot-and-sour cucumbers, use a mandolin or sharp knife to cut the cucumber halves into ⅛-inch slices. For the mala or sesame cucumbers, smack the two cucumber pieces along the back with a heavy knife or rolling pin until they start to break down a bit and the skin starts to crack. Cut in half again vertically and then diagonally into bite-size pieces.
- Put slices or pieces in a colander and mix well with 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Let sit and drain for 30 minutes. Pat the cucumbers dry with a clean towel or paper towel and transfer to a bowl.
- For the hot-and-sour cucumbers, add the sliced fresh or pickled chilies to the cucumbers. Mix the rice vinegar, water and sugar together and pour over the cucumbers and chilies.
- For the mala cucumbers, add the 1 teaspoon rice vinegar to the cucumbers. In a small sauce pan or wok, heat the oil over medium heat until slightly hot and a test Sichuan peppercorn starts to sizzle. Add the peppercorns and cook until they sizzle and smell very fragrant. Add the dried chili peppers and toss quickly, allowing them to get toasty but not burned. Immediately pour the oil and peppers over the cucumbers and mix well.
- For the sesame cucumbers, mix the yacai, sesame paste, rice vinegar, sesame oil and garlic together well in a small bowl. Combine with the cucumbers and mix well. Drizzle the cucumbers with the chili oil and flakes.