When I first moved beyond Anglo-Chinese takeaway food and started learning about proper Chinese cuisine, one of the many pleasant surprises I had was how tasty and refreshing the cold dishes (涼菜/liáng cài) can be. Indeed, most of the Chinese-language menus I've seen are divided primarily into cold dishes and hot dishes, and these arrive together rather than in strict cold-then-hot sequence. You can even make up an entire meal from cold dishes, if you like; Beijing Haochi has a nicely-illustrated paean to the joys of 涼菜, describing just that.
Certain of my regular dining partners disapprove of my penchant for ordering 黃瓜 (huáng guā/cucumber) dishes in Chinese restaurants, claiming that the markup on these cheap, simply-prepared ingredients is unjustifiable. I do see their point, but I really enjoy the crunch and contrast in amongst the more intensely-flavoured dishes.
There are a number of styles of 涼拌黃瓜 (liáng bàn huáng guā), which literally translates as "cold mixed cucumber". The photo at the top of this post illustrates one I ate at Baozi Inn in Chinatown; the cucumber is stirfried ultra-briefly (10-15 seconds) in oil flavoured with dried red chillies, and marinated with vinegar, sugar, and a few spices. Alice de Jong has a recipe for this style; she calls it 黃瓜皮 (huáng guā pí, literally "thin sheets of cucumber"), while Baozi Inn calls it 炝黃瓜 (qiàng huáng guā), with the 炝 describing the very brief cooking of the cucumber in the flavoured oil.
Another option is the rather fun (and garlicky) 拍黃瓜 (pāi huáng guā), literally "bashed cucumber". It's a bit messy to make (I ended up with cucumber innards in my hair the first time I tried), but also kind of satisfying if you've had a tough day. The basic idea is that you cut the cucumber into wedges and then bash it with the side of a cleaver (or a rolling pin) to break it up and make it easier for the garlicky dressing to soak in. Here are some recipes: Beijing Haochi, Lily's Wai Sek Hong, Planting Bamboos.
I'm also keen on the spicer forms of cucumber dish; the photo below is of the 蒜泥黃瓜 (suàn ní huáng guā) served at Chilli Cool in Bloomsbury; although the name translates simply as "cucumber with mashed garlic", it's spiced up with hot chilli oil and loads of Sichuan pepper. I don't have a recipe for this yet, but I'll certainly be experimenting.
Recipes for Chinese cucumber salads:
- Alice de Jong: Pickled cucumber (黄瓜皮)
- Beijing Haochi: Smashed cucumbers with garlic (pai huang gua 派黄瓜)
- China South of the Clouds: Cucumber with herbs and peanuts
- Hollow Legs: Smacked cucumber salad, turbo-charged
- Lily's Wai Sek Hong: Smacked cucumber salad
- Planting Bamboos: 拍黄瓜 Chinese smacked cucumber