Salade de concombre sichuanaise

I discovered this spicy peanut-topped cucumber salad just as Sichuan cuisine began making it big in Paris. It’s on the menu of Deux Fois Plus de Piment (‘Twice as Much Hot Pepper’), a small Sichuan joint in my neighborhood that the chef Shaun Kelly once named as his favorite Paris restaurant. This was back in 2012. Fresh, crunchy and piquant, the salad had me going back for more on a regular basis — until the pandemic struck.

Salade de concombre sichuanaise / Spicy cucumber salad with peanuts

With only a couple hours’ notice, France shut down all restaurants in March 2020 and it was some time before home delivery was allowed. Suddenly I was cut off from Sichuan food. What to do, what to do? I had become hooked not only on the cucumber salad but also on Deux Fois’ Sichuan ravioli, spicy chicken and fabulous spicy beef soup. I had already found a first-class Sichuan cooking site, but their version of the cucumber salad wasn’t the same. So I improvised and started making it at home.

The key ingredient in this salad, as in many Sichuan recipes, is Sichuan peppercorn. It looks different from black peppercorn in that it’s a reddish brown and more wrinkled. Unlike hot red peppers (piments in French), Sichuan peppercorn is described as numbing rather than fiery. And its flavor is just unbeatable. You can find it at Asian grocery shops.

Which is not to say there’s no fire in this salad, which also includes cayenne. How much heat to add is up to you. At Deux Fois, diners may choose their level of heat on a scale of 1-5. I once made the mistake of choosing Level 2. Oops! Level 1 is already plenty fiery.

Preparation of the salad is easy and may be partially done in advance. The cucumbers are half-peeled and chopped, then mixed with a dressing of soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, garlic and the two kinds of pepper. Crushed peanuts and snipped cilantro are added on top. It’s both light and filling, and perfect for warm weather.

Once Sichuan cuisine debuted in Paris, Deux Fois became so popular that it spawned two offspring — Trois Fois Plus de Piment and Cinq Fois Plus de Piment (that’s Three Times and Five Times as spicy!). But visiting the original, a modest hole-in-the-wall around the corner from my place, was not my first encounter with Sichuan cooking. That event took place in Manhattan in the 1970s at a place whose name I no longer remember.

A large group of friends had invited me along one summer’s evening. We were seated around a long table and handed an even longer menu. One item intrigued me, so I inquired about it when the waiter finally got around to me. The conversation went like this. Me: ‘What is a sea cucumber?’ He: ‘What do you mean?’ Me: ‘Is it a fish?’ He: ‘No.’ Me: ‘Is it a vegetable?’ He: ‘No.’ Me: ‘Well then what is it?’ He: ‘What is a hot dog?’

Happy cooking.

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