Japanese-Inspired Cucumber Salad

published Jun 24, 2020
summer
Japanese-Inspired Cucumber Salad

This summery cucumber salad, inspired by sunomono, is crunchy, refreshing, and swimming in delicate umami notes.

Serves4

Prep20 minutes

Cook30 minutes to 1 hour

Jump to Recipe
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platter of Japanese cucumber salad
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

When I was growing up, my mom used to slice up a bowl of cucumbers, toss them with cane vinegar, and sprinkle black pepper on top. This always ended with me getting scolded, because when those cucumbers were set before me, I would eat the entire bowl without sharing a single slice. But being Filipinx means I love sour (and pepper!). It’s in my DNA to crave that flavor profile.

What I didn’t realize at the time is how universal this style of salad is. Years later, I visited my half-Japanese best friend at her house, and she, just like my mom, laid out a bowl of sliced cucumbers, although hers were tossed with rice vinegar. I remember saying to her “I grew up eating this!” and doing my best not to devour the whole thing.

As I now know, many cultures around the world have a variation of a vinegared cucumber salad. Today, I’m sharing a favorite inspired by ones made in Japan and all the times my mom took me out to Japanese restaurants. It’s crunchy, refreshing, lightly vinegar-y, and swimming in delicate umami notes.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

A Refreshing Cucumber Salad Inspired by Sunomono

Sunomono is a classic Japanese salad that is traditionally served in small bowls before or during a meal. While the base is most often comprised of cucumbers and vinegar, the add-ins can vary greatly: everything from thinly sliced octopus and shrimp to daikon radish and carrots.

This recipe is directly inspired by sunomono. Persian cucumbers, which I’ve given a chunkier cut to amp up their delicious crunch, are tossed in a Japanese-style marinade. It’s a mix of rice vinegar, mirin, sugar, and sesame oil, and while some recipes call for the addition of soy sauce, I like to use hondashi, a concentrated bonito stock base that enhances umami flavor.

Hondashi has saved my life more than a few times during quarantine — I’ve added it to my okonomiyaki egg base, and used it to make dashi rice when I didn’t have kombu dashi in my freezer. As I discovered doing recipe research, Chrissy Teigen uses hondashi in her cucumber salad recipe as well. If you can’t find it, substitute fish sauce, or a splash of soy sauce.

As for the add-ins, I opted for a mix of fresh herbs: mint, scallion greens and cilantro. Stirring some into the salad and layering the rest on top gives this salad its fresh summer feel.

Japanese-Inspired Cucumber Salad

This summery cucumber salad, inspired by sunomono, is crunchy, refreshing, and swimming in delicate umami notes.

Prep time 20 minutes

Cook time 30 minutes to 1 hour

Serves 4

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 1 pound

    Persian or mini cucumbers (5 or 6)

  • 1 teaspoon

    kosher salt, divided

  • 1 tablespoon

    dried wakame

  • 1/4 cup

    water

  • 2 tablespoons

    rice vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon

    mirin

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    hondashi, or 3/4 teaspoon fish sauce

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    granulated sugar

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    red pepper flakes

  • 1 tablespoon

    toasted sesame oil

  • 2

    medium scallions

  • 2 tablespoons

    fresh cilantro leaves

  • 2 tablespoons

    fresh mint leaves

  • 1 tablespoon

    toasted sesame seeds, divided

  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon

    Asian chile oil, such as La-Yu (optional)

Instructions

  1. Place a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl. Halve 1 pound Persian cucumbers lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1 to 1 1/2-inch pieces. Cut each piece in half diagonally.

  2. Place the cucumber pieces in the strainer, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the kosher salt, and toss to combine. Let sit for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour — the salt will draw the water out of the cucumbers. Meanwhile, prepare the wakame, dressing, scallions, and herbs.

  3. Place 1 tablespoon dried wakame in a medium bowl and cover with 1/4 cup water. Set aside to hydrate for at least 10 minutes. Pat dry with a paper towel, then coarsely chop. You should have about 1/4 packed cup chopped, hydrated wakame.

  4. Place 2 tablespoons rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon mirin, 1/2 teaspoon hondashi or 3/4 teaspoon fish sauce, 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes in a large bowl. Whisk until the sugar, hondashi, and salt are dissolved. Whisk in 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil.

  5. Thinly slice 2 medium scallions, keeping the whites and greens separate. Add the scallion whites to the wakame. Place the scallion greens in a small bowl. Tear 2 tablespoons cilantro leaves and 2 tablespoons mint leaves into small pieces, add to the scallion greens, and toss to combine.

  6. Add the salted cucumbers, wakame, and scallion whites to the vinegar mixture and toss to combine. Let marinate, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 10 minutes.

  7. Taste and season with more kosher salt, granulated sugar, or fish sauce as needed. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of the sesame seeds and half the herb mixture, and toss to combine. Transfer the cucumber mixture with the juices to a serving platter. Drizzle with 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chile oil if using. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame seeds and remaining herb mixture.

    Recipe Notes

    Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days.