When considering Asian food history, China is immensely important. The only way you can say that a dish is Thai, Vietnamese, or Burmese and not Chinese is to know something about regional Chinese cuisine. Yet the variety within China is seemingly endless. Maybe all of it really is Chinese after all.
“You can even find cheese in China,” said Fuchsia Dunlop, one of the speakers at a conference at CIA Greystone in St Helena back in 2015. Dunlop is fluent in Chinese and has become an expert in Chinese cuisine. She was also the first Westerner to attend the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, where she trained as a chef. She has since gone on to garner just about every food-writing award in the English-speaking world.
I bought Every Grain of Rice, her cookbook covering simple Chinese home cooking. Dunlop’s point throughout her WOF presentations was emphasizing health: Chinese food needn’t be unhealthy. In fact, some of the healthiest eating traditions can be found among construction workers or school children eating rice, lots of vegetables, pickles, a small amount of meat, and fruit for dessert.
I cooked a handful of recipes from EGOR over the weekend (Gong Bao Chicken with Peanuts may turn into a regular dinner dish), and I have a bunch still flagged for trying soon. The recipes are approachable and flavorful, and even when I cheated to use what I had on hand—Japanese rice vinegar in place of Chinese brown rice vinegar—the results were delicious. The recipe below is adapted from EGOR’s Smacked Cucumber in Garlicky Sauce. I called it smashed instead, because after salting the cucumber pieces, I mashed them a bit with my hands to remove more water. Plus, smashed cucumbers makes me think of smashed potatoes, which are also delicious.
This makes a great topping for a rice bowl or a refreshing, pungent side dish for a larger meal. It is best when eaten within a day or two of making it. For the chili oil, I made a quick version by crushing 3 small, red chiles and infusing them with about 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a small saucepan. I brought the temperature up gently until the heat from the chiles had infused into the oil. If you already have any kind of Asian chili oil on hand, use it instead.
Smashed Cucumber Salad with Soy Sauce and Chile
Adapted from Every Grain of Rice, by Fuchsia Dunlop
- 1/2 English cucumbe or 1 5-inch Persian cucumber, scrubbed but not peeled.
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon rice vinegar (brown rice vinegar if available)
- 1/4 tsp granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon chile oil (see headnote)
Slice the cucumber in half lengthwise, then slice the halves lengthwise to form quarters. Using the flat side of a chef’s knife, smash the quarters to release some of the water. Cut the quarters on the diagonal into pieces about as wide as your thumbnail (about 1 cm). Coat in salt and let rest 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, stir together the garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and chile oil in a small bowl.
Drain the cucumber, squeezing more water out of the cucumbers with your hands. Place in a serving bowl and pour the sauce over the top. Stir to coat.