Across North Africa and the Middle East, there is a culinary constant—simple cucumber salads, each an iteration of little more than chopped vegetables and fresh herbs married by oil and acid.
In Egypt, there is salata baladi, which adds tomatoes and coriander. In Algeria’s salatat khiyar, green peppers, green olives and sometimes pistachios replace the tomatoes. And in Turkey, there is çoban salatası, which has green peppers, onion and parsley.
But when we’ve made them here, they also share another trait: a tendency to turn watery once dressed. That’s because the salt in the dressing—so important for sharpening other flavors—draws out moisture from the vegetables, diluting the other flavors.
We’ve addressed a similar problem with Asian smashed cucumber salads by using the salt to our advantage. The solution was all about timing. Instead of assembling the salad, then seasoning it, we first salt any watery produce and let it drain before assembling and dressing.
We decided to try this approach with one of our favorite Middle Eastern salads, Iran’s Shirazi salad, which combines chopped Persian cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions and fresh mint. Named for Shiraz, one of the country’s oldest and most populous cities, it traditionally is dressed with verjuice (an acidic juice made from unripened grapes), but lemon or lime juice also is common.
In our Asian salad, we only needed to worry about the water from the cucumbers. But in Shirazi salad, we knew the tomatoes also could be a culprit. So we started our version by salting both the cucumber and tomatoes, then letting them drain for 20 minutes. It was time well spent: A full ½ cup of water was released.
The rest of the salad was a simple affair. We started our dressing by massaging a bit more salt into scallions to tenderize them and mellow their bite, then rounded it out with garlic, mint and a bit of lime zest and juice. When the tomatoes and cucumbers were ready, they were simply stirred in.
The result was a refreshing salad true to traditional flavors. In fact, thanks to no longer being diluted, even truer.