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.
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
- 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.
- 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
- 2 green onions, white and green parts, cut into
- Canola oil, for deep-frying
- 16 wonton or pot sticker skins, cut into
- 2 ounces dried rice sticks, broken into 4 to
- 1 pound shredded iceberg lettuce
- 2 cups (8 ounces) cooked chicken, hand-shredded
into bite-size pieces
- Toasted black or white sesame seeds (for
- 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?