This Chinese-style cucumber salad is inspired by a salad that comes from the mountains of northern Yunnan Province, which sits just at the southern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Many cooks in that area make a rich, flavorful cucumber salad by putting rock sugar and dried chili flakes on top of fresh cucumber, then dousing them in hot oil, to melt the sugar and crisp the chili. Add some dark vinegar and a touch of soy sauce, and you have something wonderfully flavorful with just the right amount of spice.
While I love that salad, I find that heating oil in a wok (or even a small pot) is often more work than I want to do for a weeknight meal. So recently, I started making my own version.
The flavors are essentially the same, but instead of rock sugar, I use some light brown sugar (which has a similar caramelly flavor). And in place of the dried chili, I use one of the best and most popular new condiments to hit American markets in recent years—jarred chili crisp. This magic, flavorful sauce lets me throw the meal together quickly, without having to use the stove. And it adds wonderful crunch and nuanced flavor, too.
What is Chili Crisp—and Why Is Everyone So Crazy About It?
In recent years, chili crisp has become one of the most popular new condiments to hit the market. For a while there, when it first came to market, Instagram was flooded with photos of different ways to use it, ranging from the traditional (on cold salads like this one) to the truly unusual (drizzling it on ice cream became a popular idea in some circles).
So, what exactly is it?
There’s no one recipe for chili crisp. At its core, it’s chilis and other flavorings in oil, and when you use it, you’re meant to use both the crunchy chili and the oil surrounding them.
Different brands of chili crisps have their own flavoring twists. The extremely popular Fly By Jing version includes ingredients popular in Sichuan Province, which include rare “tribute peppers,” along with black beans, seaweed, mushrooms, and spices. (The version made by the famous Chinese condiment company Lao Gan Ma (which is the version you’re most likely to find in Chinese markets) has caramelized chiles, fermented soybeans, garlic, and peanuts—and some MSG.
The version made by the team behind the Momofuku restaurants was apparently partially inspired by Mexican salsa macha, so it includes Mexican chili varieties and sesame seeds.
Because the different versions can have very different flavors, you should try a few. I usually end up with a few different kinds open in the fridge at once and choose the one that best suits the dish I’m eating (or my mood) whenever we want a little heat. For this recipe, I usually use Lao Gan Ma’s readily available version.
Use Chinkiang Vinegar for This Cucumber Salad
The two versions of dark vinegar most common in U.S. markets (or Asian markets in the U.S.) are Shanxi vinegar, which is aged and has a particularly rich flavor, and Chinkiang vinegar (also known as Zhenjiang vinegar), which comes from a region outside of Shanghai.
Chinkiang vinegar is what you’ll want for this recipe, if you can find it. It’s rich but also bright and acidic. It will add a light note to the cucumbers and offset the sweetness of the sugar and the spice of the chili.
If you have another Chinese dark vinegar on hand instead, you can substitute it, but start with less than the recipe calls for (I’d recommend half the amount in the recipe) and add to taste. (That said, never use the light gold rice vinegar here; the flavor profile is completely different.)
What is Chinese “Light” Soy Sauce?
Don’t confuse the “light” soy sauce in this ingredient list with low-sodium soy sauce. In Chinese condiments, a light soy just means that it’s not a “dark” soy sauce, which is rich and syrupy and used sparingly. If you’ve used soy sauce to dress dumplings at a Chinese restaurant, it was a light soy. The flavor is just a bit milder than tamari or Japanese shoyu; if you have those in your cabinet, you can use them here instead—just add a little bit less than the recipe calls for, then taste and adjust as necessary.
How to Smack Your Cucumber
Smacking is a very traditional way of preparing cucumber for cold dishes in China. It breaks up the vegetable’s fibers so that the pieces can absorb more of the flavorful sauce. It also breaks the cucumber into uneven pieces, so that every piece of the finished salad has a slightly different flavor and texture.
To smack a cucumber, peel it, then lay it down on a cutting board. Use the flat side of a cleaver or a wide knife (or even a rolling pin) to hit the cucumber hard enough that it starts to crack down the center, lengthwise.
If you’re using a cleaver, you’ll need to use a fair amount of force—don’t be shy! Start at one end of the cucumber, and work your way down to the other end, smacking along the entire length of the fruit. If the cucumber flattens slightly but doesn’t actually break down the center, rotate it 45 degrees (so the flattened side is no longer the side touching the cutting board) and smack it all over again.
Once you’ve smacked your cucumber, you can cut it up into large but irregular bite-sized pieces.
More Crunchy Cucumber Salad Recipes
Smashed Cucumber Salad with Dark Vinegar and Chili Crisp
2 English or Chinese cucumbers
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
2 tablespoons Zhenjiang or Chingkiang vinegar
2 teaspoons Chinese light soy sauce
1 to 2 teaspoons chili crisp
Peel and smash the cucumbers:
Peel the cucumbers, then lay them on a cutting board and smash them with the flat side of a cleaver or a wooden rolling pin until they are nearly broken in half lengthwise (or have broken into long chunks).
Work with one cucumber at a time, going from one end to the other, and making sure to use enough force (or smack enough times) that the cucumber flattens a bit and starts to break apart along the sides.
Cut the cucumbers:
Cut the cucumber into 1 to 1 1/2-inch chunks and put them in a medium bowl.
Salt the cucumbers:
Add the salt to the cucumber and toss well with chopsticks or a wooden spoon. Let the cucumber sit for 10 minutes, so the salt can draw out some of the moisture. Holding the cucumber back with a clean hand or a perforated ladle, tip the bowl over the sink to drain away any excess moisture.
Dress the cucumbers and serve:
Add the sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce to the cucumbers and toss well with the same chopsticks or wooden spoon. Mix 1 teaspoon of the chili crisp into the cucumbers and taste. If you’d like more flavor and spice, add more of the chili crisp.
Serve. This dish should be consumed within 1 hour of making.
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|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 3g||3%|
|Saturated Fat 0g||2%|
|Total Carbohydrate 9g||3%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||3%|
|Total Sugars 3g|
|Vitamin C 4mg||22%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|