Sunday, April 22, 2007

Pai Huanggua

I stood in the middle of my kitchen, smashing cucumbers with my knife as I would a poisonous insect that I needed to be sure was dead. Cucumber guts sprayed onto my apron and the floor. A satisfying thwapping rhythm rang through the kitchen. My friends watched with what I would like to think was admiration, but more likely was horror. The dish? Pai huanggua, or Chinese smashed cucumbers with garlic and vinegar.

Pai huanggua was one of the favorite appetizers of the Beijing expat set. The Chinese concept of a salad is fruits or vegetables drowning in sweet mayonnaise. Since Chinese restaurant food is quite oily, especially for a western palate, foreigners often ordered from a small selection of cold appetizers that were more similar to the Western salad ideal. Pai huanggua is the king of all these dishes. Cucumbers are smashed with a knife, marinated in garlic, vinegar, chili paste, and sesame oil, and then topped with a healthy sprinkling of msg.

At least that’s how I made them. Unfortunately, my pai huanggua did not taste like the dish I loved in Beijing. First, I used Chinese black rice vinegar, and I think the dish is traditionally made with white vinegar. I didn’t use msg. And, I’ve never seen a recipe for pai huanggua, so it is altogether possible that there are other mysterious ingredients that I neglected.

While my dish wasn’t exactly pai huanggua, it still was delicious. It was more of a Chinese-inspired refrigerator pickle, which I would definitely make again.

Chinese Refrigerator Pickle

1 English cucumber, smashed and sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
Chinese black rice vinegar
Sesame oil
Chili Paste
Salt
White Rice Vinegar

Mix the ingredients with enough vinegar and sesame oil to coat the cucumbers (I used a 3:1 ratio of vinegar to sesame oil). Add chili paste and salt to taste. Add more salt than you think you should – the flavor will disappear during refrigeration.

Refrigerate the cucumbers for about one hour. Strain the cucumbers, and redress with a little black rice vinegar, white rice vinegar, and sesame oil. Enjoy.

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