Personally, I like hot and spicy food–very hot and spicy. Where I live, servers at Asian (and sometimes other) restaurants will often ask how hot you want a dish. If you ask for it much above mild, your server may look at you dubiously, convinced you’ll be sending your dinner back. Fortunately I learned a helpful trick very early on in my time in Minnesota. Steve and I went to an East African restaurant in St. Paul. As we read our menus, we eavesdropped and couldn’t help but overhear a conversation at a nearby table. A woman gave her order to her server, a young woman who looked herself to be either East African or of East African descent. This server hemmed and hawed and finally said, her voice that of a concerned kindergarten teacher, “Um, that’s a very, very spicy dish.” Without missing a beat, the guest replied, “It’s okay. I’m not from Minnesota.” The server then let her have what she wanted. You can also just say that you’re from one of the coasts or that if your dinner doesn’t make you cry, you won’t be happy.
In any case, as someone who likes foods hot enough to bring up a sweat and make his scalp itch, I’ve learned that it helps to have something cool (not always a beverage) to help navigate a spicy dish. For chili, I use a little sour cream. For my Chinese chicken with dried peppers, I make this easy cucumber salad. I use a mandoline to produce paper thin slices of cucumber, but you can just use a sharp knife or even a vegetable peeler for similar results. If you use a knife or mandoline, leave the cucumbers unpeeled–they come out prettier (and the skin is good for you).
In my fantasy world, I arrange the delicate slices in an elaborate flower design that would make a palace chef in imperial China proud; in reality, I plunk them down in a bowl. Taste is unaffected. You can vary the character of this dish quite easily by changing the kind of vinegar, producing a cucumber salad for almost any type of cusine. (For example, red wine vinegar and a dash of olive oil would push this in an Italian direction.) You can also increase the heat dramatically by adding more garlic, red pepper, or a dash or more of toasted sesame oil, but don’t go over board if this is meant to soothe a mouth raging from a very spicy dish.
Quick Cucumber Salad
- 1 cucumber washed ends trimmed, and sliced thin (but unpeeled)
- 2 tablespoons vinegar white wine, tarragon, or rice wine
- 1 clove of garlic minced
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- In a bowl, toss the cucumber slices with all the other ingredients.
- Refrigerate for a minimum of 20 minutes, tossing or stirring occasionally. If you let it refrigerate longer (and you certainly can), make sure you let it come up closer to room temperature before serving--you want it chilled (rather than fully room temperature) but not ice cold.