Over the weekend, I found a rarity at my local farmer’s market: a head of iceberg lettuce. I love its delicate jade color and flavor, despite many others thinking that it’s a declasse vegetable. Iceberg is crunchy and cooling. For Vietnamese food, I like to tuck it into banh mi and cellophane noodle and fried tofu rice paper rolls (bi cuon chay, see page 161 of Asian Tofu for the recipe). But to savor a lot of that gorgeous iceberg lettuce that I picked up, I looked to making Chinese chicken salad.
The chicken ‘salads’ in most Chinese cookbooks don’t resemble what is served in American restaurants. They lack fried crunchies and have little, if any, lettuce. What many people in the States know as Chinese chicken salad is a New World thing.
Where did Chinese chicken salad come from? According to Celia Chiang of the renowned Mandarin restaurants in San Francisco and Beverly Hills, she came up with the salad. She laid claim to it in The Seventh Daughter, her award-winning cookbook and memoir. Cecilia is a feisty woman and you don’t want to mess with her. The Chinese chicken salad that she presents in the book calls for flash frying chicken, shredding it, then tossing it with iceberg lettuce, cilantro, fried rice noodles, lots of roasted peanuts and a dressing of warm oil, mustard powder and five spice powder.
Cecilia’s approach was interesting with its earthy dressing, but I was looking for the Chinese chicken salad with lots of fried wonton skins, rice noodles and a sweet-savory hoisin-based dressing. No canned mandarin segments for me; they seem to dilute the flavors, despite their charming look. I went hunting for my ideal Chinese chicken salad.
What I settled on was a version made by an old friend, Victor Fong, who was born and raised in Chinatown, Los Angeles. His family had a gigantic wok in their house, enough to cook a turkey in. His father cooked at the now-defunct Yee Mee Lu, a very popular spot in its day. (A bit of info on Yee Mee Lu is on Chow.com)
Years ago, Victor made his family's Chinese chicken salad at our house for a party of about twelve. He tossed all the components in a giant bowls and we ate it all up, along with a bunch of other food. His rendition was simple, yet elegant and special too. It was also light, with a balance of flavor.
Victor sent me a rough recipe via email and the surprising thing was his dressing. It had ketchup. I would have never known it from what he’d made for me in the past. Ketchup is in a number of Vic’s favorite Cantonese recipes to lend a sweet tartness and reddish hue.
- Soak the green onion in cold water to make them curl, look perky, and taste less harsh. I did the same with the cilantro because you use a fair amount.
- Use whatever cooked chicken. I had leftover grilled chicken from Sunday night and shredded the breast meat.
- The rice noodles and wontons skins can be fried hours in advance. I used pot sticker skins as I had them around from cooking up crispy duck tacos. Note that the noodles to fry are dried rice noodles (bun, rice vermicelli) not cellophane noodles made from mung bean starch.
Frying the rice noodles takes organization because it happens very quickly. I went a couple of rounds with it and given its dramatic frying, I made this iPhone video in case you needed a little assist: (Note: Turning the noodles over helps to ensure even frying all over. If your noodles are all fried, don't turn them!)
This salad can be prepped in advance and assembled at the last moment for a light one-dish meal. My husband came home for lunch yesterday and we enjoyed the salad in the garden. A great summer meal.
Chinese Chicken Salad
Yield: Serves 4
- 3 to 4 tablespoons hoisin sauce
- 1 tablespoon ketchup
- 1 tablespoon light (regular) soy sauce
- 1/4 cup low-sodium canned chicken broth
- 1 tablespoon sesame or chile oil
- White pepper
- 1 cup coarsely chopped cilantro, stems and leaves
- 2 green onions, white and green parts, cut into thin strips
- Canola oil, for deep-frying
- 16 wonton or pot sticker skins, cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips
- 2 ounces dried rice sticks, broken into 4 to 6-inch lengths
- 1 pound shredded iceberg lettuce
- 2 cups (8 ounces) cooked chicken, hand-shredded into bite-size pieces
- Toasted black or white sesame seeds (for garnish)
- For the dressing, whisk together the hoisin sauce, ketchup, soy sauce, and chicken broth. Taste and adjust the flavor for a slightly salty, sweet finish because the other ingredients are not salted. Add the sesame or chile oil and season with white pepper. Set aside.
- In separate bowls, soak the cilantro and green onion in cold water for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain well and set aside.
- Meanwhile, heat about 1 1/2 inches of oil in a wok or deep skillet to 325F to 350F on a deep-frying thermometer. In batches, fry the wonton or pot sticker skins until golden; drain on paper towel. In batches, fry the rice sticks until puffy, crisp and white; drain on paper towel.
- In a very large bowl, combine the iceberg lettuce, chicken, cilantro, and green onions. Toss with about 2/3 of the dressing. Then add the fried wonton skins and noodles. Add the remaining dressing and gently toss. Divide among plates and serve immediately.
Do you have a favorite Chinese chicken salad recipe? How does it differ from the one above?