Cucumbers are one of my favorite summer vegetables. My two favorite ways to eat them are in sandwiches or slightly pickled. My mother prepares a pickled salad of cucumbers, cider vinegar, water, pepper, and sliced sweet onion. It’s common to have this for nearly every meal when the garden is in full swing. It’s refreshing on a hot summer day.
Lately, I’ve experienced a version at both Korean and Japanese restaurants which I’ve found wonderful. The flavor is slightly sweet-sour and often the are also coated in toasted sesame seeds. I decided to make my own version of this pickled cucumber salad and surprised myself with a near perfect knock-off.
The main difference with this salad to what my mother would make is the type of vinegar and the sweetness added via sugar and mirin. Asian rice vinegars are more mild than Western vinegars – I used a pale Chinese rice vinegar. Mirin is a Japanese seasoning that is similar to sake but sweeter and with less alcohol content. It adds another dimension to the salad and moves it beyond a run-of-the-mill sweet and sour flavor.
I figured that the Japanese restaurant likely used mirin in the salad they made and fortunately I had a bottle on hand. I used it a couple months ago when I made sushi but haven’t found a use for it since. Although it is subtle in the salad, I think it is an essential ingredient.
Asian-Style Cucumber Salad
4 cups English or Persian cucumbers, cubed
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon mirin
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
It’s best to select a thin-skinned cucumber for this salad. English cucumbers or Persian cucumbers work well — I happened to purchase the Persian variety.
The cucumbers should be chopped into cubes about 1/2-3/4″ thick. The Persian cucumbers are small, so I sliced them length ways then cut crosswise into half-moon shapes.
Place the cucumbers into a bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Toss the cucumbers to fully coat. Let sit for 15 minutes. The salt will season the cucumbers but also draw out some of the water. After 15 minutes, thoroughly rinse the cucumbers and drain. Make sure to rinse out the bowl before returning the cucumbers.
Combine the vinegar, mirin, sugar, and red pepper flakes into a small bowl and stir until sugar dissolves. Pour the mixture over the cucumbers. Press the cucumbers down into the liquid so they are covered as much as possible. Refrigerate for 8-12 hours.
It’s important that the cucumbers sit for as long as possible – it’s amazing how much difference it makes. I tested them at 6 hours and they were ok, but after resting for the entire night they were absolute rockstars. Before serving, drain the liquid and sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds. If you haven’t toasted sesame seeds before, you can read this post on how to toast sesame seeds.
While I love the pickled cucumber salad just the way it is, I played around to see how I could mix it up. You could add sliced sweet-pickled ginger for an added kick of spicy-sweet flavor or add seeded and chopped tomato for texture contrast. All three versions put a smile on my face.
For an interesting cooked cucumber recipe, try this cucumber casserole recipe.