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Sichuan food gets a reputation for its fiery, mouth-numbing dishes, and quite fairly. They are certainly the dishes that make the biggest impression on you when you hit up a Sichuan restaurant or roam the streets of Chengdu. But as Joe DiStefano pointed out in his wonderful article on the flavors of Sichuan beyond ma la, there's a lot more to it than that. One thing you'll quickly notice (and thankfully notice, if you've been loading up on the hot stuff), is their love of fresh, crunchy pickles. No meal is complete without a dish of cold, vinegary vegetables, whether turnip, cabbage, peanuts, or cucumbers.
To be fair, sometimes chilies will feature in these cold pickled dishes as well (roasted chilies and cucumbers are a particularly common combination), but their primary role in a meal is to bring refreshment. Think of them as a palate cleanser between bites of the heavier stuff.
Sichuan-style smashed cucumbers are the simplest example of one of these dishes, and coincidentally my favorite one. At some point in the last couple years, the technique of smashing cucumbers for salads has become so popular that the New York Times even wrote a trend piece about the subject. Does saying that they've been a thing long before the NYT discovered them make me a hipster? I suppose so. But it's true. Smashed cucumbers have always been delicious.
Here's the technique: put a cucumber on the counter, skin and all, and smash it. Ta-da!
It's easy enough to slice a cucumber lengthwise, cut it into cubes, then toss those cubes with garlic and vinegar, so why bother with the smashing step? Well the first is a practical one. Provided you've got yourself a heavy cleaver (the bottom of a skillet or a meat pounder will do just as well), then smashing an English or Japanese cucumber is a faster and more efficient way of breaking it up. You'll find that it tends to split lengthwise into 3 to 4 spears when you do so, then it's a simple matter of a few cross-cuts and you've got your cucumber cubes.
But of course, there's another reason to smash: flavor.
Smashing the cucumber disrupts its internal structure in a wild, haphazard way, leaving some areas completely intact and crisp, while reducing other areas to tender rubble. It's this latter part that makes the smashed cucumbers particularly tasty, as it absorbs the flavor of the vinegar and the garlic. Salting the cucumber right after chopping and letting it drain for about 10 minutes before seasoning further concentrates its flavor.
The result is almost like a quick pickle. The cucumber gains tons of bright acidity while maintaining its crunch. Except it's even faster than a quick pickle. I don't know what you call it. A hyper-pickle? Flash-pickles? What you get if Cheetara and a pickle have a baby? You get the idea.
The one lesson I've learned about these pickles the hard way over the years is that everything about them is quick: if you don't eat them within half an hour or so, they become soggy, limp, and slimy. Fortunately, they're so good I can't foresee this being a problem.