Smashed Cukes

This recipe was sent to me by a “family” member who, to me, represents the absolute essence of this dish. I realize that the logical follow-up to this sentence would be to describe why/how Nyka represents cucumber salad, but I feel I first have to address the quote marks. I have a really small family, and what family I have has always been spread far and wide (though recently we’ve been able to come together a bit more, which is super nice), making it hard to share all those big holidays that families usually mark together. So, I learned at a very young age that family isn’t necessarily about blood-lines, but about who you spend those special occasions with, and who you associate that “connected-for-no-reason” feeling. I’ve known Nyka my whole life, and though she’s spent most of it globe-trotting (hence the amazing recipe), her appearances at my parents’ house always feels like a coming-home of sorts (especially now that we’re both far from that home). It’s not as if I know her terribly well, but that doesn’t matter – she’s family. Luckily what I do know about her, I love (which is more than I can say for some unhappy families out there – at least that’s what all those reality shows seem to portray). Despite all the parenthetical references, hopefully that makes sense to you and you understand where I’m coming from.

Now, how does Nyka resonate cucumber salad? Compared to the previous paragraph, that’s easy: she’s bright, bold, and effortless, with just the right amount of heat. Whip out your cleaver, and let’s get to work.

Light and zippy, this salad is the perfect nod to summers in Beijing (or so I’m told, not having got there yet myself)…
  • 2 tsp Chinese vinegar if you have it, or half-half balsamic vinegar and white vinegar
  • 2 tsp soy sauce (light or dark) or tamari
  • 1 cm cube of grated ginger
  • 1/4 tsp (or a few drizzles) toasted sesame oil
  • 1/2 tsp brown or white sugar
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed and roughly chopped (or put through a garlic press if you want it MEGA spicy; blanch the cloves for 45 seconds in boiling water then run under cold water if you want to cut the spiciness)
  • 1/2 English cucumber or 3 small cucumbers. Peeled or not, as you wish, but unpeeled is best (in my humble opinion)

Mix everything but the cucumber in a small bowl to make the dressing. Set aside. It should be nice and sloshy.

Trim the ends of the cucumbers, then smash with a broad-sided knife (preferably a square cleaver for safety’s sake). I’d advise wrapping it in a clean tea towel that you don’t mind washing, because this can get really messy. The first time I made this I scraped cucumber innards off the bottom of my kitchen cabinets for a week.

Once you’ve get the pieces in large rough chunks, either use your hands to tear them into more manageable bits if you’re going for the organic look, or have a quick go at them with your cleaver. Place the chunks into a serving dish and pour the dressing over them. Try to get all the pieces into the sauce so they can marinate. Serve immediately or set on the table or fridge to rest while you prepare the rest of your meal.

I’ve served this dish as a refreshing yet spicy side to oven-roasted tofu steaks with pumpkin seeds and five-spice-crusted cauliflower, and as a “dip” for crackers (just make sure the pieces are really small if you go this route).

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