Chinese

Chinese Chicken Salad is Back! (& Better Than It Was in 1989)

August 18, 2016

In my early twenties, I spent a year living in L.A. where Chinese chicken salad was everywhere. After a year in Italy, I was wide open to non-Mediterranean flavors—and this is definitely not a dish you’d ever find in Italy.

“Chinese” chicken salad is not really Chinese at all: It’s one of those weird fusion dishes that somehow come to dominate abroad. You might find something to give you a clue as to where it began if you traced its origins, but in its new form, it’s unrecognizable to the culture it’s named for.

But while this salad might not have anything to do with authentic Chinese food, but it's deliciously refreshing—and simple and flexible enough that all the ingredients are accessible anywhere. You can easily throw it together with various leftovers, but it's also worthy of a special shopping trip.


The dressing:

Unlike Mediterranean salads, the dressing is made of sesame oil instead of olive oil. I add soy sauce and lime juice for the acid component I always want in a salad.

The protein:

This salad is typically made with chicken, but any protein would be nice: shrimp, fish, steak—make the whole dish around a specific ingredient or use it as an easy twist on leftovers.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I haven't had or thought about Chinese Chicken Salad in years. My mom used to make a great one in the early eighties. Lots of cabbage, cilantro, shredded romaine and green onions. A delicious soy, lime dressing. The best part were the very crunchy rice stick noodles that were flash cooked in oil in her wok. Like the ones that are sometimes served with sesame beef. I think her recipe came from Sunset magazine. I believe I have it in my recipe box. ”
— Susan W.
Comment

The technique I use for poaching the chicken is one I adopted years ago from an Asian cookbook, and I find produces a perfect chicken texture for shredding. The meat doesn’t get overcooked but instead remains moist as it absorbs the aromas of the poaching liquid—far beyond boring old chicken breast.

Two other ways to poach a chicken, right here:

The vegetables:

The napa cabbage is a robust green that can handle the aggressiveness of the dressing and maintain its texture. I try to always have one in my fridge since it can be eaten or raw or cooked or even used in a steamer basket to nestle frozen dumplings on.

You really only need the cabbage and two other vegetables: I also like to add carrots, cucumbers, and scallions, but you could go wild and add harder-to-find ingredients like purple daikon with great success. Recently, I found purple napa cabbage at the farmers market and thought it added a whole new level of beauty to the salad.

The crispy bits:

I think the original had fried Chinese noodles for crunch, but I like to use toasted sesame seeds, crispy fried shallots, or even a combination of both. Fried shallots are a classic Southeast Asian garnish that can easily be made in advance and kept in a dry cool place for at least a week.

Because this salad is so inauthentic, I feel it’s completely appropriate to use whatever crunchy bits you have access to: even crispy tortilla chips would work.

Have you had a Chinese chicken salad you know and love? Tell us in the comments below!

19 Comments

Glenn December 11, 2016
I love the addition of the Shallots. I also add fried Garlic slivers and either fresh Halo's or other small Clementine tangerine slices like the fresh sweet pop from the mandarin orange to offset the sesame shoyu lime vinaigrette and i keep it classic with the deep fried saifun noodles not the Won Ton strips like we find in Hawaii versions, also I like to do a variation with a Chinese Five-spice Roasted Chicken breast with Crispy skin really adds to the umami of the whole dish. Mahalo for your post.
 
ivygreene August 21, 2016
Both Chin chin and Feast From the East are still in business and serving up this essential LA dish! This summer I have been adding watermelon radishes and fresh orange slices. Fresh grapefruit and avocado are also delicious options.
 
Renee Z. August 21, 2016
I took classes with Hugh Carpenter many years ago and loved his version of this. Can't wait to try this recipe, sounds delicious!
 
Susan W. August 21, 2016
I haven't had or thought about Chinese Chicken Salad in years. My mom used to make a great one in the early eighties. Lots of cabbage, cilantro, shredded romaine and green onions. A delicious soy, lime dressing. The best part were the very crunchy rice stick noodles that were flash cooked in oil in her wok. Like the ones that are sometimes served with sesame beef. I think her recipe came from Sunset magazine. I believe I have it in my recipe box.
 
Donna H. August 20, 2016
Just made this tonight, it was delicious!
 
paseo August 20, 2016
ChinChin on Ventura Blvd back in the day - thanks to Hugh Carpenter. Would go there every time I was near Studio City. A terrific salad it was. Thanks for this one though - and it's the best method to poach breast.
 
zora August 19, 2016
The version of Chinese chicken salad that my husband has requested on a regular basis since the 1980's--we lived in L.A. from 76-96-- must include a mix of shredded iceberg and romaine lettuces, packaged crunchy noodles, and canned mandarin orange pieces. He will tolerate other ingredients, as long as the crunchy noodles are included. And I have gotten away with substituting fresh clementine sections for canned fruit. It's the only salad that he is always enthusiastic about eating.
 
healthierkitchen August 19, 2016
Thanks for the throwback, Sara! I had a this kind of salad probably three times a week for lunch when I worked in downtown LA from 1988 - 1990! Wish I could remember the name of the place, but really, at that time, it was ubiquitous. Everyone made one. I'm wondering @amysarah, if Puck came up with it?<br />
 
Mrs W. August 18, 2016
Nobody does better chicken salad like Joan's on Third in LA. I have searched for year for a dressing like theirs and have yet to find anything close.
 
cv August 18, 2016
The chicken salad at Ming's in Palo Alto was famous, sadly the restaurant closed several years ago and the building razed to the ground.<br /><br />Unlike this recipe, much of the flavor of the Ming's version came from the chicken itself which was heavily seasoned (most notably with Chinese 5-spice) and fried.<br /><br />The dressing itself was relatively simple (soy-mustard base). There was no hoisin sauce as is found in many contemporary Chinese chicken salads. <br /><br />Nuts -- peanuts or cashews in the Ming's version (not almonds) -- were an integral part of the dish.<br /><br />Early versions of this salad featured fried vermicelli noodles for crunch.<br /><br />The Ming's version did evolve over the years -- adjusting to changing diner preferences -- so various "copycat" recipes online will differ based on when they were written.
 
Ellen S. August 18, 2016
I would love to be able to make the Chinese Chicken Salad at Chi Dynasty in Los Feliz (L.A.). A longtime favorite—complex, refreshing, crunchy, slightly sweet, and perfectly balanced.
 
HalfPint August 18, 2016
Yank Sing in San Francisco makes a really chicken salad too, but their dressing has hot Chinese mustard or horseradish. It's sweet, tangy, with a moderate hit of wasabi-like heat. Anyone have a good recipe?
 
amysarah August 19, 2016
In the late 80's, I often traveled to LA for work - a highlight was dinner (expense account!) at Chinois on Main in Santa Monica, near our hotel. (Don't know if it's still around.) The Chinese chicken salad Wolfgang Puck served there was a big favorite, and seemed quite novel at the time. <br /><br />I think its dressing may be close to what you're looking for - found it online: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/chinois-chicken-salad-with-chinese-mustard-vinaigrette-recipe.html
 
Barbara D. August 18, 2016
My Chinese Chicken Salad came from an article in a food magazine in the 70's by a Chinese chef. It was called "White-cut chicken, with odd-flavor sauce". It contains both sesame paste (tahini) and oil. I still have the clipping. It was my boys' favorite dinner.
 
HalfPint August 18, 2016
@Barbara, would it be possible to get the ingredients for that odd flavor sauce?
 
Ali S. August 18, 2016
This might be close: https://food52.com/recipes/38626-lucky-peach-s-odd-flavor-sauce
 
HalfPint August 19, 2016
Totally forgot about Odd Flavor Sauce
 
PHIL August 18, 2016
Unlike the Chinese Chicken salad, I was better in 1989
 
BerryBaby August 18, 2016
I love this salad! This is one of many dishes I make using store bought rotisserie chicken. My salad is similar with cabbage and I also slice radishes for a nice crunch and freshness.