Light green, firm and less bitter than other cucumis sativus varieties, Korean cucumbers (or oi) present themselves as long pickling gourds. They have small seeds, that nice bitable, puckered skin and enough appeal to be the featured stars of a few classic side dishes in Korean cuisine. Oi sobagi (stuffed cucumber kimchi) and oijangajji muchim (salty cucumber pickles) both contain hot pepper flakes to balance the cucumber’s naturally cooling effect. Besides being fresh and crisp, cucumbers are loaded with vitamins B, C and K, silicon, sulfur and dietary fiber. They help relieve arthritis, reduce cholesterol, control blood pressure and promote joint health. Koreans have used oi as a skin care aid for blemishes, sunburns, puffy eyes, wrinkles, freckles and as a natural skin whitener. A friend told me they are especially helpful in curing the unsightly summer pimples one might get from sweating too much in the sit spot. To prevent a hangover, blend a cucumber with a bit of water and drink it before going to bed.
Cucumbers are almost a daily part of my culinary routine, especially as the temperatures rise. Usually, I cut them into sticks and eat them plain, garnish a green salad or sport thin slices on an open-faced sandwich. Lately though, I’ve been trying to compose dishes inspired first by the cucumber. They have an incredibly encouraging nature, and in experimenting with these gorgeous gourds, I feel like I’ve discovered treasure.
Cucumbers pair very well with sour items, such as lemon, vinegar or feta cheese as they cut the bitterness. Other bitter flavours, like cumin, highlight their natural sweetness. Oi are incredibly versatile, so go wild now while they’re in season.
Cucumber Salsa with Pan-fried Mackerel
I bought a vegetable slicer from a man on the subway who demonstrated how thinly it could slice cucumbers. I use it to make this bright and beautiful salsa, but a knife works fine, too. Eat with chips as a snack, or make it dinner by topping pan-fried mackerel with mounds of it.
Heat a pan on high on your stovetop. Place a tablespoon of butter to melt on the pan and distribute evenly. Once melted, place mackerel filets skin side down on the pan. Toss a pinch of salt over the fish.
After a minute, gently lift the filets to check if they are ready to be turned. They should be a bit browned and crispy. Turn and cook for thirty seconds. Remove from heat when opaque and firm to the touch.
Serve over steamed rice and garnish with black sesame seeds and a heaping spoonful of cucumber salsa.
Cucumber Salsa (makes about 3 ½ cups)
2 cucumbers, thinly sliced, then chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 or 3 tomatoes, chopped
½ cup chopped bell pepper (go colourful)
1 green chili pepper, minced
3 gloves garlic, minced
2/3 cup chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 lemon, juiced
¾ teaspoon salt
Optional: ¼ cup chopped green olives
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly.
Cucumber, Grapefruit and Mint Cordial
On hot summer days, I like to cool down with shredded cucumber water. Two parts margarita, one part mojito, this boozy and refreshing drink hits the same sweet spot. Cucumber ice keeps the drink from diluting as much.
Cucumber Ice (makes enough to fill one standard ice cube tray)
1 cucumber, blended with enough water to liquify
2 tablespoons tonic water
Mix the cucumber, tonic and salt in a bowl and pour into an ice tray. Freeze for at least an hour.
Cordial (makes 2)
2 ½ ounces tequila
1 ounce Cointreau
1 cup tonic water
1/3 cup grapefruit juice (preferably freshly squeezed)
10 cucumber ice cubes
6 water ice cubes
2 tablespoons fresh mint, minced
sugar to taste (especially if your grapefruit juice has no added sugar)
Fill tall glasses with both kinds of ice and top with minced mint. Pour in the tequila, Cointreau and tonic. Shake the sugar (if using) with grapefruit juice until incorporated. Pour juice over ice and booze and gently mix. Drink. Be cool.
Thanks to Jun Hong Park for research assistance.