Smashed cucumber salad is a glorious, simple recipe that is more than the sum of its parts. Crisp, craggy shards of cucumber and slivers of broccoli are infused with a zippy, garlicky dressing, then studded with chili tofu. It really is quite sublime. And it is completely no-cook.
I repeat, no cook.
Below is my more satiating, side-to-main take on the classic Sichuan side dish, pai huang gau. Used as a cooling foil for cooked Chinese dishes, the original cucumber salad is popular all over China. Indeed, cucumbers by themselves are a refreshing snack during the hot summer months. Kinda beats our own obsession with creamy iced coffee drinks.
A main dish of cucumber – really?
For this recipe I’ve taken the principle players – cucumber, salt, vinegar, sugar, sesame oil – and given the dish more nutritional and textural dimension. And I think it tastes pretty darn good, too.
It’s a bit unusual to focus a whole dish on such a low-key ingredient. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, cucumber is never the center of our culinary attention. Used mainly as the crunchy bit in a green salad, and part of the gang of three as hummus dipper – with carrot and celery – this vegetable-fruit rarely shines. And that’s a shame.
This smashed cucumber salad, with its thin slivers of raw broccoli and soft cubes of tofu, all in a chili-flecked, garlicky, salty, tangy dressing, may change your mind about cucumber forever. Which, I grant you, is a bold statement. But I hope to have you rushing to your kitchen to see for yourself.
Get excited about cucumbers? You bet.
Why smash my cucumber?
I realise the comic value in this question. But really, smashing cucumbers has two clear advantages. One, smashing helps – along with essential salt and sugar – draw out a hefty amount of liquid from the cucumbers and makes them crisper. Two, it facilitates the sucking up of any tasty marinade/dressing like a boss. Bonus advantage: smashing food stuffs – cuke, avocado, potatoes – just sounds cool, right?
What does this smashed cucumber salad go with?
- As written, it can go simply with cool, slippery soba noodles (see above image), or similar. But it is substantial enough to feed two as a light, lower carbohydrate meal, with perhaps charred spring onions or leeks alongside.
- As a protein-pumped side dish it can go with most any Chinese meal, lightening the whole event. I would even eat it as a starter course, to keep me from going too crazy with the cooked dishes.
- You may wish to have it buffet style with other salads for a large gathering.
- This also goes very well with plainly-cooked, leftover poached salmon. Incredibly filling, and extremely effective at staving off sugar cravings.
What’s in this smashed cucumber salad?
Cucumbers, English. Here in the UK we just call them cucumbers. Our ones are smooth, long and thin-skinned (good in cukes, but not people). Their small, juicy seeds are not annoying as they are in other varieties. Shopping at a farmer’s market you will see many other varieties. So, if purchasing there do get ones that are thin-skinned, at the very least. And, please do try to get organic ones: cucumbers are notorious for the amount of chemicals they are sprayed with. To know more about growing cucumber, read this article.
Broccoli. Not a ton, but enough to bulk out the salad and offer a different texture. It doesn’t suck up the flavours like the smashed cucumber, but it certainly adds its own bitter-sweet flavour, that many of us appreciate. And of course, health-promoting nutrients (read this). Best cut as slivers, use florets and sweet stem.
Garlic. Powerfully pungent, smashed garlic, minced into the tiniest of nubs, is essential. For those that can’t do garlic, try a dash of asafoetida.
Yuzu juice or lime juice. This is not at all traditional, but the citrus notes go very well here. If you have yuzu, go with it. Somehow its distinctive mandarin-grapefruit aroma really works.
Rice vinegar. In equal parts to the citrus. If you have black vinegar, use it. The woody, maltiness is perfect.
Soy sauce. Use wheat-free if you need to. Lower-sodium of either is probably best on health grounds.
Toasted sesame oil. Just a little.
Salt and sugar. These act to de-gorge the cucumber of much of its water, making it much crisper. You will be tossing the smashed cucumber with these and left to drain in a sieve. Please don’t be tempted to rinse the de-gorged cucumber: the sugar and salt will be in the drained liquid rather than on what you are eating.
Chili flakes and optional Sichuan pepper. Use whatever chilli flakes you like. I like fragrant and not too hot Korean red pepper flakes. Sichuan pepper, lightly toasted and ground, add yet another interesting flavour. And tingle.
Chiu Chow Chili Oil. Bought or homemade. This is an exceptional kind of garlic-chilli oil with the bits left in as a delicious “sediment”, and is beyond delicious. Addictive too. We love it drizzled onto fried rice, green breakfast stir fries, and over fried eggs. It is available at most large UK supermarkets.
Sesame seeds, well-toasted. Not just a garnish, these tiny impactful seeds add nutrition and awesome taste and texture.
How to make it
It is very easy to make, just requiring a little time to sort the cucumbers. And remember, it’s no-cook. Woo hoo!
First of all, prep the cucumbers. Wrap them in parchment paper or cling film and lightly bash across their length with a rolling pin or heavy knife until just split; you aren’t getting out your frustrations here. Cut the smashed cucumber into bite-sized pieces and place in a sieve or colander. Toss through the salt and sugar and place over a bowl to drain for 15-30 minutes in the fridge.
While the cucumber is draining, thinly slice the broccoli and cube the tofu. Pop the tofu in a bowl, and spoon over the chilli oil, then mix lightly to coat. If you are using the Sichuan pepper, toast it in a small pan for literally just one minute as it burns quite easily. Crush with a pestle and mortar, or a heavy knife.
Add the minced garlic, lime/yuzu, vinegar, sesame oil, chilli flakes and Sichuan pepper to a mixing bowl and stir. Add the drained cucumber pieces (they will retain just a bit of sweetness and salt), broccoli and most of the sesame seeds to the bowl, tossing well to coat. Now either very lightly mix in the tofu then serve, or let each diner add cubes to their own serving. Garnish with the rest of the toasted sesame seeds.
Let me know if you like the sound of this and are tempted to try it.
And of course, you can make it without the tofu.
Other cucumber recipes on Food To Glow
Smashed Cucumber Salad with Broccoli and Tofu
Smashed cucumber salad is a glorious, simple recipe that is more than the sum of its parts. Crisp cucumber and broccoli, infused with a lime, garlic and chilli dressing. Add cubes of chilled tofu for protein and contrast. Make it now.
- 2 English cucumbers about 750 grams
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp sugar
- 150 g broccoli cut into slivers
- 2 cloves garlic smashed and finely minced
- 1 tbsp yuzu juice or lime juice
- 1 tbsp rice vinegar
- 2 tsp lower sodium soy sauce
- 1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil more to taste
- 1/2 tsp chilli flakes Korean pepper flakes are nice
- 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns toasted in a pan and ground to nubbly powder - optional
- 250 g organic tofu Japanese-style preferred; cubed - optional
- 1 tbsp chui chow chilli oil or other Chinese chilli oil - optional
- 2 tbsp sesame seeds well-toasted - more to taste
Rinse the cucumbers and wrap in parchment paper or cling film. Use a rolling pin or meat mallet to smash the cucumber. I methodically move down the cucumber, trying to ensure it is evenly split open. Don't smash it to smithereens. Rather, just smash until it flattens a bit and splits. Remove the paper/plastic and cut into four long lengths, then into bite-sized pieces. No need to be pedantic though.
Pop the cucumber into a sieve and toss in the sugar and salt. Mix well and leave in a cool place for at least 15 minutes to drain. Thirty minutes is ideal.
While the cucumber is draining, make the marinade. Add the smashed and minced garlic, yuzu/lime juice, vinegar, soy sauce, chilli flakes, Sichuan pepper and sesame oil to a wide mixing bowl and stir well.
Shake the cucumber of excess liquid and add to the bowl with marinade (it will not be salty or too sweet). Toss in the broccoli pieces, too. Turn it all over with your hands or thin bowled-spoon, and tip onto a serving dish. Shower with the toasted sesame seeds.
If you are adding the tofu, stir through with the chui chow chilli oil and lightly toss through the smashed cucumber and broccoli.
Serve immediately, or chill for up to half an hour. Serve with noodle dishes.
This cool salad is amenable to other protein choices - cooked prawns or even crab springs to mind.
To keep it more traditional, just use the cucumber and the marinade, plus the sesame seeds. the broccoli and tofu will make it more filling and nutritious, as well as give more textural dimension.
Pin now. Make soon!