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Suffolk food writer Nicola Miller on her love of cucumbers – both their scent and flavour and gives us her recipe for Japanese-style cucumber salad





A little green pot of el cheapo cucumber hand cream sits on my desk. It is the scent of summer, captured inside plastic. ‘Cucumis sativus fruit extract’ is listed in the ingredients, which reassures me that somewhere inside its pale green gloop are real cukes. Still, unlike actual cucumber slices - aka the OG way to deal with the effects on your eyes of too much screen time - you are warned not to get this cream in them, which somewhat mars the illusion of natural goodness.

If a product is scented with cucumber, I will buy it, but no cosmetic scent on earth can compare to the smell of a greenhouse filled with cucumber plants just after they have been pruned and watered or the fragrance that wafts through the air when you bite into a freshly-picked fruit. (Yes, the cucumber is actually a botanical berry, classified as a pepo, and I was 56 years old when I learned this, despite holding an old RHS diploma in horticulture.) Its scent is made up of more than 78 volatile compounds. Aldehydes and alcohols imbue it with ozonic, grass-sharp and green aromas, and C9 aldehydes and alcohols add floral notes. The result? Olfactory perfection.

Once upon a time, I was given a pot of cucumber and honey face cream, which felt like an intuitive combination of ingredients: field-grown plants have beehives placed amongst them to supercharge pollination. Unfortunately, this is not the case for cucumbers grown in greenhouses that tend to be parthenocarpic varietals, meaning they are self-fertile, although this doesn’t stop the bees from trying - and nor should it. In Ukraine and Lithuania, people eat cucumbers doused in honey. I found a recipe for this incredibly simple side dish in Simon Bajada’s book Baltic: New and Old Recipes from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania where he recommends experimenting with honey varietals. Similarly, I think I’d enjoy honey and cucumber ice cream too. Another favourite cucumber recipe of mine sees them thinly sliced and salted before being blanketed in sour cream, a preparation I remember buying in little foil trays from French traiteurs when we went on holiday. I’ve never been able to replicate this flavour memory to my satisfaction, but my version, in which I add lemon juice, sea salt and white pepper to the sour cream, is a decent substitute. And if you haven’t eaten this before, there’ll be nothing to compare it with.

Nicola Miller's Japanese style cucumber salad
Nicola Miller's Japanese style cucumber salad

A Japanese-style cucumber salad is relatively new to me, and I like this as it is devoid of emotional baggage (which tends to colour one’s cooking in ways that are not always pleasant). I’ve been reading Japan: The Vegetarian Cookbook by Nancy Singleton-Hachisu, published earlier this year. She has a special recipe for Kyuuri No Shouga-Su (cucumber in ginger vinegar), where the cucumber is diced and flavoured with the buds of Japanese ginger (myoga) and a sauce made from its juices plus dashi, rice vinegar and lemon juice. But not everyone has access to fresh ginger buds or Japanese cucumbers. (Large English cukes have too many seeds and can be watery because of this, rendering them less suitable for this salad.) I had to travel to Ipswich and Cambridge to look for the unseeded and slender pine-green cukes much beloved in Japan or the smaller, relatively seedless Persian kind, which are a good stand-in. I learned I had to be early: they sell out very swiftly, and I couldn’t find fresh ginger buds at all. They are extremely seasonal. I suppose I could substitute the mildly spicy flower petals of Magnolia soulangeana in spring, but they tend to lack ginger bud’s floral notes and satisfying crunch. (Coincidentally enough, a species of magnolia is nicknamed ‘the cucumber tree’ because of its cuke-shaped seedpods.)

This kind of food hunt might be too much to ask of those who don’t live near larger urban centres with international food stores, so I have adapted a fairly typical - and more accessible - Japanese recipe for Kyuri no Sunomono (cucumber salad) instead, using baby cucumbers bought from my local market. Small chunky coins of cucumber and slender ribbons of seaweed are dressed with mirin, rice vinegar, soy sauce and black sesame seeds. It’s so good served with rare roast beef, tuna, octopus and squid, or you could add tiny brown shrimp, chopped roasted mushrooms, toasted peanuts or small prawns to the salad itself.

You may read my recipe and wonder how the hell you’ll get hold of packets of wakame (dried seaweed), but I found mine very easily online. If you prefer to shop in person and live nearby, go to Cambridge, where plenty of stores cater to Japanese, Chinese and Korean customers. I like Oseyo Cambridge at 16 Petty Cury, Seoul Plaza on Mill Road, and Retour UK at 42 Clifton Road. Rice vinegar, mirin, and light soy sauce are available from supermarkets and corner stores too, but if you can, buy Japanese varieties of rice vinegar (look for Mizkan’s Kome Su) and Kikkoman’s light soy sauce (Usukuchi Shoyu), neither of which will drown out cucumber’s airy scent and flavour. Occasionally I can find some of these ingredients in Bury’s Faraway Foods Store. It’s worth keeping these condiments in stock; they are endlessly versatile.

NOTE: Keen foragers and gardeners will know about salad burnet, a hardy perennial whose leaves taste of cucumber. Mark Diacono, author of Herb: A Cook’s Companion, has said it might be his favourite leaf to add to summer salads. It would work well here. A few leaves of sorrel wouldn’t go amiss either. You must make this salad just before serving to preserve its fresh texture. Serves four as a side dish or two as a main salad.

JAPANESE-STYLE CUCUMBER SALAD

Ingredients:

Eight baby cucumbers

1 teaspoon table salt

5g wakame (dried seaweed)

3 teaspoons mirin

3 teaspoons rice vinegar

3 teaspoons light soy sauce

1 teaspoon black sesame seeds

Slice the washed cucumbers into chunky coins and place them in a colander. Toss the cukes with the salt. Leave them to drain for ten minutes.

Place the wakame (dried seaweed) into a large bowl of cold water. Leave to soak for six to eight minutes or until the seaweed is supple. If the ribbons are too broad, cut them up with scissors.

Make the sauce by mixing together the mirin, rice vinegar and soy sauce.

Squeeze excess water from the cucumber and seaweed, then pat dry using kitchen roll or a clean tea towel. Place them in a serving bowl. Pour over the dressing, toss the salad, pour over the black sesame seeds and toss again.