Fans of Sichuan cuisine know that even spice fiends need something to ward off all the heat in your mouth between bites. Cucumber salads are served at almost every Sichuan restaurant I've been to, and are good appetizers as well as good palate cleansers.
It's also easy make at home. However, one of the main ingredients is Sichuan peppercorn, which can still be rather hard to find outside China. For years the US had a ban on Sichuan peppercorn imports, which they recently lifted. But the last I heard the spice is still not widely available. (What is the situation like in other countries?)
In any case, if you aren't able to get your hands on any, you can always substitute with a dash of red pepper flakes or 1 tablespoon hot chili paste. If you have Sichuan peppercorns and you're brave enough, leave them whole instead of grinding them up. (*Be aware of the numbing effect called mala （麻辣). Don't worry...it becomes addictive.)
Also, although restaurants in China like to serve the cucumbers in longer strips, I sometimes like them cubed. More surface area means more flavor absorbed.
A less spicy version of the salad can make a good appetizer for Western meals too.
More Sichuan recipes to try:
Sichuan Cucumber Salad
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer
- 1 large or 2 medium-sized cucumbers, peeled
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons cooking oil, like peanut or vegetable
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper, ground or whole, or substitute red chili flakes
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1 tablepoon sugar
- 1 or 2 teaspoons chili garlic paste
1. Cut the cucumber(s) in half lengthwise, then cut each half again so you have quartered strips. Cut or scoop out the seedy middle section. Slice each strip into 3cm (1 inch) cubes. Put the cucumbers in a bowl, and toss with salt. Set aside for 5 to 10 minutes, as the salt draws out excess moisture from the cucumbers.
2. Heat a small pan on medium-low heat. Add cooking oil, then add garlic and Sichuan pepper. Cook until fragrant, but careful to not to let the garlic burn. Set aside in a small dish to cool.
3. Drain the cucumbers through a strainer or sieve, and return them to the bowl. In a separate bowl, mix the rice vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, and chili garlic paste. Pour the mixture over the cucumbers. Add in the garlic and pepper that was cooling, and mix well. Serve at room temperature, or chill in the fridge for up to a day to serve cold.