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.