Sunomono: Cucumber and Wakame Salad in a Vinegar Marinade
Literal translations have a way of sounding ridiculous, and none more so than Sunomono’s: it comes out as “vinegarable thing” or “that which you put vinegar on.” This concept covers a whole family of dainty Japanese salads flavored with a subtle, vinegar-based marinade and sometimes (but not necessarily) topped with seafood.
Ancient documents show that Japanese people have been making sunomono-style dishes at least since writing was first introduced to our country. That’s over 1300 years ago!
Now, sunomono is not exactly a side dish: instead, it’s what we call a “hashi-yasume” (箸休め) which – and here comes another of those crazy literal translations – means “chopstick vacation”. Less poetically – but more helpfully – my dictionary glosses it as a “palate-cleansing side dish.”
You know how sometimes, in a fancy French restaurant, they will serve a tiny dish of sorbet between courses to refresh your palate? Hashi-yasume is a little bit like that: a tiny, refreshing dish that contrasts with and accentuate the experience of eating the main dishes in the meal. That’s why sunomono is always served in very small portions: it’s not really a dish, it’s a holiday for your chopsticks!
One last thing about this recipe: in Japan, you would make sunomono with rice vinegar. Now, if you’re a purist with money to burn, you can certainly find rice vinegar in Europe and North America, too. But we realized a long time ago that good apple cider vinegar works just as well for these kinds of recipes, and costs much less, so that’s what we use here in Montreal.
Ingredients (for two)
- Cucumber – one small one – about 10 cm long
- Cut wakame seaweed – one tablespoon
- Optional: Sesame seeds
- Optional: Kanikamaboko – imitation crab meat*
For the marinade
- Vinegar – two tablespoons
- Sugar – one tablespoon
- Salt – just a pinch
- Soak dried wakame in hot water to recompose it, for about 5 minutes
- Place a whole cucumber on a wooden cutting board and sprinkle it with salt
- Applying a little pressure with the base of your hands, roll the cucumber back-and-forth over the salt, until it starts to “sweat” – i.e., give off excess water.
This technic is called “itazuri” and it makes cucumber color vivid and remove the unpleasant bitteness. I do itazuri also for normal cucumber salad.
- If there’s too much salt on the cucumber at the end, rinse it off with water
- Slice the cucumber diagonally, as thin as possible. You’re aiming for translucent slices here. And squeeze out the extra moisture.
- Once it’s recomposed, drain the wakame and squeeze out the extra moisture
- Mix the marinade together and stir thoroughly, making sure the sugar dissolves fully in the vinegar (the color in photo is brownish only because I use brown sugar)
- Pour the marinade over the cucumbers and wakame (*If you have Kanikamaboko, add here pulling apart.)
- Let it sit in the sauce for a few minutes
- Serve on dainty little plates and sprinkle some sesame seeds on top
click to enlarge
I like to pair this very light salad with a heavy dish like gyuniku itame, just to give my chopsticks a little vacation now and then from all the greasy meat.