You know a side-dish is impressive when it is more memorable than the dish it was supposed to support.
This was the case with an incredible Taiwanese cucumber salad I ate at Fuhong Beef Noodles in Ximending District, Taipei.
This cucumber salad is unlike any you have eaten before. An unusual cross between pickled and cured cucumbers, this salad is sweet and sour, laced with aromatic sesame and garlic, and has a unique soft and crunchy texture that comes from an unusual curing step.
The end result is a uniquely refreshing side dish that is great served alongside any rich Taiwanese or Chinese-inflenced dish. Or if you’re like me, you’ll just keep a bowl of these addictive little cucumbers handy for snacking!
Of course you can save time by making quick-pickled cucumbers, but start them the night before by following this recipe and you end up with a Taiwanese cucumber salad that is not only authentic, but a real delicacy in its own right.
Where is this Taiwanese cucumber salad recipe from?
This Recreation Recipe is a direct recreation of the Taiwanese cucumber salad served at Fuhong Beef Noodles – a well-known beef noodle restaurant in central Taipei.
I came to this restaurant because a Taipei local had recommended their beef noodles as being the best in Taipei. Indeed the noodles were excellent, coming with soft slices of beef shank, homemade rustic noodles, and vibrant orange chilli ‘butters’.
Surprisingly though, when I looked back on the experience, it was the small plate of cucumbers that I kept dreaming about. Not only were they a perfect foil for the rich bowl of beef noodles, but they were delicious in their own right.
I have since spent time (and many cucumbers) getting to a recipe that faithfully recreates the texture and balance of tastes that I so liked in the original dish.
Read on for the results!
The noodles I was lucky enough to try at Fuhong Beef Noodles. Little did I know at this point that the little dish on the left would steal the show…
The original dish – how it tasted
Reading back on my experience, there are a few key elements that made this specific Taiwanese cucumber salad really great:
- Texture/appearance – the cucumbers had an unusual but delicious texture. Slightly softer and more bendy than fresh cucumber, but importantly still crunchy. They also had a different appearance to fresh cucumber – slightly shrunken and a touch more translucent.
- Balance of tastes – the predominant taste was sweetness (a common occurrence in Taiwan, where sweet dishes are popular), balanced with some saltiness. There was also sourness, but only a small touch – just about big enough for these to be classed as ‘sweet and sour’ in my mind.
- Fragrant flavours – finally, the cucumbers were laced with the fragrance of sesame. Raw garlic supported this. There was chilli visible on the cucumbers, but not enough to affect the flavour and/or taste particularly.
The original Taiwanese cucumber salad I ate at Fuhong Beef Noodles
Cooking notes – how to make Taiwanese cucumber salad
Although there is nothing difficult or technical required to make these cucumbers, you need to follow 3 steps to make them taste just like those I ate in Taipei:
- Curing (leave at least a few hours, but overnight ideally)
- Marinating (leave at least 30 mins)
- Drizzle with sesame oil before serving
1 – How to create that texture? Cure your cucumbers!
This was perhaps the hardest bit to work out.
I tried straight pickling – far too sour. I tried marinating in soy sauce – they were slimy and unseasoned in the middle. I’ll spare you everything I did, but in summary, I tried the lot.
In the end, there was only one way to do it – curing. This is nothing complex, it just means coating your cucumber slices in granulated salt and sugar and then leaving them a while, just like you might do when making cured salmon such as gravadlax.
My cucumbers after coating with salt and sugar
During this time, the seasoning will penetrate the cucumbers properly and the salt will pull water out of them. Excess water can be drained off at the end.
My cucumbers after curing overnight. Notice the pool of water sitting in the bottom, which has been pulled out of the cucumbers. Removing this improves the flavour and texture.
The end result is two-fold:
- 1 – You achieve the unique texture – reducing water content using salt to draw off water means that the cucumbers don’t get slimy. Also, they become slightly translucent and bendier, yet still retaining the important crunch – just like the cucumbers I ate in Taipei.
- 2 – Your cucumbers are properly seasoned – during the curing, the salt and sugar have time to permeate through to the core of the cucumber. This means your batons are truly sweet and salty. If you skip this step, the exterior can be nicely seasoned, but each bite will be disappointingly overwhelmed by the wateriness of the interior.
Your final cucumbers will have changed appearance entirely: bendy but still crunchy, more intensely flavoured, and seasoned to the core
The cured cucumbers, ready for marinating
2 – Add additional seasoning and flavouring
Once you have achieved the desired texture, sweetness and saltiness, it is time to take your cucumbers to the next level. The second stage of marinating , consists of three ingredients:
- 1 – raw garlic – the second biggest flavour behind sesame. Don’t worry, the pungency is tempered somewhat by the vinegar.
- 2 – raw chilli – these were present in the original dish but not enough to be tasted. Therefore I have added fairly little although I like a bit of heat and think it goes well, so I tend to add a bit more.
- 3 – vinegar – four sourness (see below)
This marination does not have to be anywhere near as long as the curing stage. 30 minutes is fine (although longer won’t harm it).
Vinegar – season, don’t pickle
The vinegar you add at this stage is critical for making the cucumbers ‘sweet and sour’. I have read lots of Taiwanese pickled cucumber recipes, but these are not the same as they swamp the chillies in vinegar.
Although Taiwanese pickled cucumbers can be nice in their own right (especially paired with sweeter dishes), I far preferred the delicate balance of sweet, sour and salty that Fuhong Beef Noodles achieved in their cucumber salad.
To achieve this balance, I only add a touch of vinegar after the curing stage, enough to season but not overwhelm.
3 – Add sesame oil just before eating
The sesame aroma was the most noticeable flavour of the original cucumber salad dish, and so is key to get right.
There is only one rule to follow – the oil should be drizzled over the cucumbers just before serving. Why? I found that the longer you left it sitting with the cucumbers and vinegar, the less fresh it tasted. The exact flavour change is hard to describe, but something about leaving it stewing with the vinegar, garlic etc detracted from that beautifully fragrant sesame aroma.
What cucumbers to use? Size doesn’t matter
At Fuhong Beef Noodles in Taipei, they used mini-cucumbers, which had been halved lengthways, cored and cut into roughly 1.5cmx6cm batons.
I have used the standard larger cucumbers you get in the UK and they are just as good really, so don’t worry if you can’t find the smaller ones.
Just make sure you cut them into something close to 6cmx1.5cm batons, which may involve quartering the larger cucumbers.
And whatever cucumber you use, always core it by scraping out the translucent seeds with a teaspoon. The seeds are too watery, have no texture and don’t take up much flavour.
My cored cucumbers, sliced into batons for my Taiwanese cucumber salad
Which vinegar to use?
I think it is safe to assume that they use a Taiwanese vinegar in their cucumber salad at Fuhong Beef Noodles. However, any standard vinegar will do really, as you are only using it for a touch of sourness and any subtle flavour in the vinegar will be lost amongst the garlic and sesame.
I used a standard white wine vinegar, although rice vinegar would probably be a closer match if you have it.
How long does this Taiwanese cucumber salad keep?
Once made, the cucumber salad will last at least 1 week in the fridge. There is no need to eat them quickly, I think they actually get better over time.
I like to make a big batch and then keep in the fridge all week, both for snacking and serving alongside other meals.
What to serve with this Taiwanese cucumber salad
As I mentioned in the intro, I like this salad so much that I can just eat them outright!
However, they are normally considered a side dish to be served with richer Taiwanese dishes, and are a common accompaniment to Taiwanese beef noodle soup.
I like them alongside any rich Taiwanese, or indeed Chinese-influenced dish.
Adjusting the sweetness/sourness of your Taiwanese cucumber salad
This recipe is on the sweeter side because that is the way they serve it at Fuhong Beef Noodles (the Taiwanese are generally fairly keen on sweetness, especially alongside the otherwise rich and spicy dish that is beef noodle soup). I also really liked the balance they had.
However, if you are planning to serve Taiwanese cucumber salad alongside a sweeter dish, then personally I would consider altering the sugar/vinegar levels to push them more to the sour side.
Taiwanese Cucumber Salad Recipe – authentic recreation from Taipei
- 1 large cucumber 450-500g before coring
- 2 tbsp granulated sugar (this seems like a lot but most will drain off in the water)
- ½ tsp fine salt
- 1.5 tsp rice vinegar or white wine vinegar
- 1 garlic clove thinsly sliced
- Small piece of red chilli finely chopped (I used about half the size of the garlic clove)
- 1 tsp Sesame oil
- Prepare the cucumber by slicing into roughly 6cmx1.5cm batons (if using mini-cucumbers, they can probably just be halved. If using larger ones you will have to quarter them at least). Remove the translucent seeds with a teaspoon and discard.
- Add the salt and sugar to the cucumber batons and cover completely by mixing with your hands. You want each baton to be thoroughly coated.
- Leave uncovered in the fridge overnight (or for at least 3 hours).
- Remove from the fridge and drain off the water that has been extracted. The cucumbers should be sweet and salty all the way through. They will also have changed appearance, becoming slightly shrunken and translucent.
Marinating (for 30 mins)
- Add the garlic, chilli and vinegar. Mix thoroughly and place back in the fridge to be marinated for at least 30 minutes (although longer is fine).
- Remove from the fridge, drizzle with the sesame oil and serve.