When I lived in China over 10 years ago, I tasted smashed cucumber salad (拍黃瓜, pai huang gua) for the first time. It is a simple dish of cucumber pieces tossed with lots of garlic, vinegar, and seasonings. Growing up, I didn’t eat many Chinese dishes that featured raw garlic. I was pleasantly surprised by how addictive such a simple dish could be.
In some Chinese menus, you might also see cucumber salad referred to as 涼拌黃瓜 (liang ban huang gua), which literally translates to cool tossed cucumbers. All these salads are quite similar: raw cucumber pieces tossed with raw garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, and other seasonings.
Chinese smashed cucumber salad is a good side dish that’s simple to prepare but delivers in flavor. As a matter of fact, I sometimes just eat the salad with rice for dinner and it’s so satisfying.
HOW TO MAKE CHINESE SMASHED CUCUMBER SALAD
When making cucumber salads, I like using cucumbers with tender seeds. That’s why Persian, Japanese, or English (hot house) cucumbers work great for this smashed cucumber salad recipe.
Personally, I think Japanese cucumbers taste the best because they have a subtle sweet flavor. I find Persian and English cucumbers a bit bland nowadays. I usually buy Japanese cucumbers at the Sacramento farmers markets. You can also find them in Japanese grocery stores like Oto’s Marketplace. If Japanese cucumbers are not easy to find, use Persian or English cucumbers.
Japanese cucumbers can be quite thick, especially ones that I find at the farmers market. Because of the thickness, they can be difficult to smack whole with a knife. That’s why I recommend slicing the cucumber in half lengthwise.
Then, place the cucumbers, cut side down. Place the side of your knife over the cucumber. Using the fleshy part of your palm, smack the knife, until the cucumber starts to split. Continue doing this along the length of the cucumber. The larger surface area of a meat cleaver makes it perfect for this job. Finally, slice the cucumber diagonally.
Persian cucumbers tend to be smaller and have more tender skin than Japanese cucumbers. If you’re using Persian cucumbers, you should be able to smack them whole without having to slice them first.
SHOULD YOU SALT THE CUCUMBERS?
It depends on your preference. Most cucumber salad recipes will tell you to toss the cucumbers with a pinch of salt. Then, you let the cucumbers rest for 15 to 20 minutes so that the salt can draw out excess moisture. If you hate watery cucumber salads, then you’ll absolutely want to do this salting step.
I’ll be honest, I often don’t bother to salt the cucumbers beforehand. I usually wait until I’m just about to serve dinner before tossing the smashed cucumber pieces with the sauce. I think that I can taste the natural sweetness of the cucumbers better this way. That said, in about 15 minutes, a pool of water will form at the bottom of the salad bowl. I don’t mind this liquid at all. As a matter of fact, that liquid is great for flavoring jasmine rice.
In the recipe and the cooking video, I provide directions on salting the cucumbers just in case that’s what people prefer.
MAKING HOMEMADE CHILI OIL
I like using my homemade chili oil as a component of the sauce for this smashed cucumber salad. If you’ve made my chili oil before, you’ll know that I like using fresh garlic and ginger to make the oil more fragrant. I also like using a combination of regular chili flakes (below left) and gochugaru (below right), Korean red pepper flakes (sometimes translated as red pepper powder).
The chili flakes are the red pepper flakes that you can find in the spice aisles of your grocery store. They should have a medium level of spice. I usually buy chili flakes from The Allspicery, which is a Sacramento spice shop.
I love using gochugaru for my chili oil because it has a subtle spice and light smoky flavor. More importantly, it turns the chili oil into a beautiful shade of red that is unparalleled. You can find gochugaru in Korean supermarkets in big bags. I also like using Mother-In-Law’s gochugaru because they come in small jars. It’s a good size if you don’t use gochugaru often.
To make the oil, add all the spices to a heat-proof bowl (ceramic or stainless steel is great).
Then, heat 1/3 cup of oil over medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until the temperature of the oil reaches 325ºF to 350ºF and the oil looks thin and runny. You can use any neutral flavored oil like vegetable, grapeseed, almond, or avocado oil. Do not heat the oil hotter than 350ºF because the gochugaru will burn.
Carefully pour the hot oil over the spices. Let the oil infuse for at least 30 minutes.
WHAT TO DO WITH LEFTOVER CHILI OIL
You only need 2 tablespoons of the chili oil for the smashed cucumber salad, so you will have leftover chili oil. I recommend tossing it with noodles or using it to season fried rice or stir fries. Try to use the sauce within a week because of the fresh ginger and garlic in the chili oil. Store the chili oil in the refrigerator. For more inspiration, here’s a list of dishes that you can use with the chili oil:
- Homemade Noodles
- Egg Fried Rice
- Kimchi Fried Rice
- Red Curry Tofu Dumplings
- Use as a drizzle over basic congee, vegan congee, or pumpkin millet porridge
SAUCE FOR SMASHED CUCUMBER SALAD
For the cucumber salad sauce, you’ll need the chili oil, freshly grated garlic, rice vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil.
To mellow out the raw bite of the garlic, I mix the garlic with rice vinegar and let that sit for 15 minutes. I like the brightness of rice vinegar for the smashed cucumber salad. Other recipes I’ve seen use Zhenjiang vinegar (鎮江醋, or Chinkiang vinegar). Zhenjiang vinegar is a dark vinegar that has a malty flavor profile.
Don’t toss the cucumbers with the sauce until you are ready to serve your meal. That way the cucumbers won’t become too soggy or limp.
CAN I MAKE THIS SALAD AHEAD?
Yes, you can prepare the salad ingredients up to a day ahead. Just store the cucumbers and the sauce separately in the refrigerator. Don’t toss the smashed cucumber salad until you’re just about ready to serve it.
Chinese Smashed Cucumber Salad (拍黄瓜)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced (about 4 teaspoons)
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 1 1/2 teaspoons chili flakes, (see note 1)
- 2 tablespoons gochugaru (Korean pepper flakes), (see note 2)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/3 cup oil, can be vegetable, grapeseed, or any neutral oil
- 1 to 1 1/4 pounds Japanese cucumbers, (see note 3)
- small pinch of kosher salt, about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon
- 3 cloves garlic, grated or zested
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons chili oil with spices
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- toasted sesame seeds for garnish
Make the Chili Oil
- The chili oil needs time to infuse so I recommend making this first. You can also make it a day ahead.
- Add the minced garlic, minced ginger, chili flakes, gochugaru, and salt in a heat-proof bowl. You’re going to pour hot oil into the bowl, so avoid using bowls that might crack (like glass and some porcelains). I usually use ceramic bowls but a stainless steel mixing bowl or a saucepan works.
- Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until the oil reaches 325ºF to 350ºF. You do not want the oil to be any hotter because the gochugaru will burn. If you don’t have a thermometer, heat the oil for 2 minutes just to be on the safe side.
- Very carefully pour the hot oil over the spices. (See note 4) Let the oil infuse for at least 30 minutes.
Make Cucumber Salad
- Slice off the ends of the cucumbers. Then, slice the cucumbers in half, lengthwise.
- Place the cucumber halves, cut side down. Then place the side of the knife over the cucumber. Using the fleshy part of your palm smack the knife to smash the cucumber until it splits. Make sure to smash along the entire length of the cucumber. Then, slice the cucumbers diagonally, about 1/2-inch thick slices. Transfer the cucumber pieces to a bowl.
- Sprinkle a pinch of kosher salt over the cucumbers and mix. Let the cucumbers sit for 20 minutes. Then, drain out the excess water at the bottom of the bowl. (See note 5) You do not need to rinse the cucumbers. (See note 6)
- Add the grated/zested garlic to a bowl and mix it with the rice vinegar. Let that sit for 10 to 15 minutes to mellow out the raw bite of the garlic.
- Add the soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of chili oil (with bits of pepper and spices), sugar, and sesame oil.
- Right before you are ready to serve the cucumber salad, toss the cucumber pieces with the sauce. Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds over the cucumber salad for garnish.
- These are the standard red pepper flakes that you can find in the spice aisles of your grocery store. They should be a medium level of spice.
- I love using gochugaru for my chili oil because it has subtle spice and a light smoky flavor. More importantly, it turns the chili oil into a beautiful shade of red that is unparalleled. You can find gochugaru in Korean supermarkets in big bags. I also love Mother-In-Law’s gochugaru, which comes in relatively small jars.
- I like using Japanese cucumbers because of their tender seeds and subtly sweet flavor. You can also use Persian cucumbers or English (hot house) cucumbers.
- Some people have asked me if you can just add the spices into the saucepan with the hot oil. You can but you run the risk of burning the spices because the heated saucepan retains a lot of heat. If you want to do this, then I’d recommend heating up the oil to a lower temperature, like 300ºF to ensure that the spices don’t burn.
- To be honest, I don’t always salt the cucumbers beforehand. That’s either because I forget or can’t be bothered to do so. I also think that I can taste the sweetness of the cucumbers better if I don’t salt the cucumbers. If you don’t salt the cucumbers, a pool of liquid will form at the bottom of the bowl of salad. I’m not bothered by the liquid. In fact, I like using the liquid to season rice.
- If you are concerned about salt intake, you can reduce the soy sauce for the cucumber sauce by about 1 teaspoon.