This refreshing, flavorful salad stars Chinese black vinegar with light soy sauce as its milder sidekick. Smashed cucumber salad (pai huang gua in Mandarin) is a staple side dish in many Chinese restaurants, and I’ve often ordered it along with soup dumplings for a light meal. Chinese black vinegar has a deep and slightly smoky flavor, mild acidity and faint sweetness. The salad usually includes garlic and sesame seeds or sesame oil, and some variations add chiles or Sichuan peppercorn; this version uses gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes) for a touch of heat, which isn’t traditional but gives the salad a nice red hue and balanced spiciness. Smashing the cucumber helps to create jagged edges so there is more surface area to absorb the dressing, while salting the cucumber softens the skin, firms up the flesh and releases some water, concentrating the cucumber’s flavor.
Partially peel the cucumbers by removing alternate strips of the skin with a vegetable peeler. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise, then use a spoon to scrape out the seeds. Smash the cucumber with a flat side of a cleaver or large knife or a rolling pin or meat mallet until it is flattened with jagged edges. Split each cucumber half in half again lengthwise. Cut the strips into 1-inch pieces diagonally.
Toss the cucumber and salt together in a medium bowl. Let sit at room temperature until the cucumber releases some water, about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, combine the oil, shallot and garlic in a small saucepan and cook over medium-low heat until the shallot is translucent, about 2 minutes. Mix in the gochugaru and allow it to bloom in the oil. Stir the vinegar, soy sauce, sugar and 1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds together in a small bowl until the sugar dissolves. Set aside.
Strain the cucumbers and dry them with a paper towel. Return them to the medium bowl. Add the vinegar mixture and toss. Toss again with the garlic-shallot oil. Garnish with the remaining sesame seeds and the cilantro.
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