Opinion | Cucumber recipes beyond kachumber
What makes cucumbers the go-to ingredient for fresh salads, sabzis and cheesy ricotta bites
Say the word cucumber and salad is the first thing that comes to mind, other than the alliterative “cool", of course. Cucumbers are rightfully the first choice of ingredient for any salad. A refreshing flavour, crisp texture, quick to prep and blending effortlessly with many other ingredients, are all points in favour.
I love coming up with new salad recipe ideas all the time and cucumbers are my favourite ingredient in salads. Cucumbers lend themselves to a variety of chopping or prepping techniques—sliced, julienned, noodles, ribbons, spirals, diced, grated, smashed and more. Varying the style in which cucumbers are prepped creates visually and texturally different salads. It also impacts the way the ingredient absorbs the dressing, spices and seasoning, which in turn influences the flavour.
Almost every cuisine in the world has a famous cucumber salad.
Oi muchim is a Korean cucumber salad with red chilli flakes (gochugaru), spring onion greens, vinegar, sugar, sesame seeds and sesame oil. Fans of Maangchi’s YouTube channel on Korean home cooking will remember salivating over her video for this recipe.
The Japanese sunomono combines cucumbers with dried seaweed, sesame seeds, rice vinegar, sugar and soy sauce.
Greek cuisine has its world-famous tzatziki, in which grated and squeezed cucumber is combined with yogurt, herbs and garlic.
Named after a city in Iran, salad-e-Shirazi is a Persian staple made by combining finely chopped cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, herbs, lime juice and olive oil, very similar to kachumber in Parsi cuisine.
Indian cuisine, which is not big on salads, has at least three very popular cucumber salads, not counting its appearance in every plate of green salad (thick slices of cucumber, tomato, onion, radish with lime wedges and green chillies) that we have grown up eating in Indian restaurants.
u Kosumbari: prepared with diced or grated cucumbers, soaked yellow moong dal, coconut, lime juice and a tempering of mustard seeds with chillies.
u Parsi kachumber: a cucumber-onion-tomato salad that is a refreshing accompaniment to dhansak and rice.
u Khamang kakdi: a Maharashtrian recipe, and hands down the best kind of cucumber salad.
Mixing sliced cucumbers and salt is a sure-shot recipe for a soggy salad bowl. Use the technique that most Asian salads swear by. Salt the cucumbers and allow them to sit over a colander to drain most of the liquid. The drained liquid, i.e. the cucumber brine, can be added to dal or even to cocktails. Pat the cucumbers dry with a clean cloth and proceed with your salad. Resist the temptation to squeeze it dry or you will be left with bruised cucumbers and lost texture.
When using the large variety, with thick dark green skin and lots of seeds, make sure you peel the skin and scrape out all the seeds before using it in salads. The European variety can be used after slicing off the ends, no peeling or deseeding required.
People seem to be divided on whether the trick of chopping and rubbing the ends to reduce a cucumber’s bitterness works. I, for one, don’t believe in it.
Cucurbitacin, the compound present in cucumbers, is a mild alkaline substance (which is why the bitterness). This is concentrated mainly in the stem end, so cutting off the ends should be good enough to remove any bitterness. Beyond that, the belief has just been passed down generations. What does help, though, is adding some acidity to a dish with lime juice, vinegar or yogurt, which helps neutralize any mild bitterness from the cucurbitacins.
Cucumbers do have potential beyond just salads and raitas. A Rajasthani sabzi made using the kakri variety goes extremely well with rotis. Madras cucumber (also called Mangaluru cucumber) is used regularly in sambhar. Recently, I was fascinated by a variety of squash that my neighbour got from her estate in Coorg. It looked like a small pumpkin with a thorny exterior and tasted very much like a cucumber—crunchy, juicy, sweet and slightly tart. I posted a photograph of this mystery squash on my Instagram and some of my followers informed me that it was mullu southekai (thorny cucumber in Kannada), which grows wild in the Malenadu area. I made a koottu (vegetables + cooked dal + coconut-based spice paste) using this and it turned out delicious.
3 medium-sized cucumbers
Half tsp salt
2 green chillies, finely chopped
Quarter-cup coriander, finely chopped
1 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp fresh coconut, grated
Half tsp cumin powder
Half tsp sugar
2 tsp peanut oil
1 green chilli, sliced
1 tsp cumin seeds
Quarter-cup peanuts, roasted
Peel and finely dice the cucumbers. Toss along with salt and place in a colander for 15 minutes to drain. Combine the cucumber with chopped chillies, coriander, lime juice, coconut, cumin powder and sugar.
Heat oil in a small pan. Fry the sliced chilli and cumin seeds and transfer over the cucumber. Crush roasted peanuts coarsely and mix into the salad just before serving.
CUCUMBER RICOTTA BITES
2 medium-size cucumbers
Quarter-cup ricotta cheese
Quarter tsp smoked paprika
Quarter tsp crushed black pepper
Quarter tsp salt
1 tsp honey
1 clove garlic, grated
1 tsp lime juice
Half tsp dried thyme
2 tsp black sesame seeds
Peel cucumbers and cut into 1cm-thick slices. In a small bowl, combine the cheese with paprika, black pepper, salt, honey, garlic, lime juice and crushed thyme. Mix well with a fork.
Spread around half to 1 tsp of this mixture over each cucumber slice. Top with toasted black sesame seeds.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.