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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.
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.
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.
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 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.
For the chicken:
- 2 quarts water
- 1/2 tablespoon sea salt
- 1 star anise
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorn
- 1 head garlic, sliced in half
- One 1-inch piece ginger, crushed with the side of a knife
- A few sprigs cilantro
- 1 scallion, cut into 3 to 4 pieces
- 2 large chicken breasts (about 1 pound)
For the salad and dressing:
- 1 napa cabbage
- 1 medium carrot, cut into matchstick-size slivers on a mandoline
- 1 cup mung bean sprouts
- 1 cucumber, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch moons
- 2 scallions, both the white and green parts, cut thin on the bias
- 1/3 cup matchstick-sized slivered radishes
- 4 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lime juice
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 1/2 cup whole cilantro leaves
- 1/2 cup whole mint leaves (optional)
- 1/2 cup whole Thai basil leaves (optional)
- 1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
- 1/4 cup crispy fried shallots (optional)
Have you had a Chinese chicken salad you know and love? Tell us in the comments below!