In the interest of cultural sensitivity, I should warn you that there’s nothing particularly Chinese about this recipe.
I mean, there’s sesame oil involved, and I had it once with crushed up, raw ramen noodles, but that’s about as far as it goes. Chinese Chicken Salad is one of those mid-century Californian inventions, a cousin of the Cobbs and Chicken Caesars, the kind of salad that Hollywood starlets in plush banquettes would have nibbled on while their studio head dates wheeled and dealed over stiff drinks.
Eventually it meandered into hostesses’ kitchens and Junior League cookbooks (Palo Alto chapter, 1960), a decidedly ladies-who-lunch interpretation of Asian flavors. And you can still find them in cafés around town, which is how I got hooked on them. And man, am I hooked.
The enduring appeal of this salad is the crunch: snappy shreds of lettuce, clean-tasting and crisp veggies (add whatever you like, really), a scattering of chopped nuts. It’s just fun to eat, with all that crunching going on. (Be careful to eat slowly: I had so much fun crunching my way through this salad the other night that I inhaled a dice of bell pepper and nearly choked. More my fault than the salad’s, really.)
And I realize cilantro is a terribly polarizing herb, but if you enjoy it, it’s bright and lovely here and knocks all the other flavors up a notch. Two or three notches, even. There’s also an addictive dressing: lightly tart and glittering with lime and vinegar, smoothed out by a smoky-serious backdrop of dark toasted sesame oil.
Best of all, you can assemble everything well ahead, and it multiplies easily for a lot of ladies lunching, say for a bridal shower or a book club meeting. (We’re reading Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, and so far it’s fantastic. I think it’s going to be considered a really important book to come out of the post-9/11 era, even though it’s set in the 70s and never addresses the tragedy directly. I should mention there are some adult themes, if you catch my drift. But I digress. Salads!)
A few bottles of Chardonnay (or if you’re like my book club, many bottles of Chardonnay), a pitcher of water with lemon slices, maybe some warm rolls or a cheese plate, and you’re set. Unless you haven’t finished the book yet, in which case you and I will be ever so glad this salad is such a snap to put together.
serves four, doubles easily
- 6 oz romaine hearts
- 6 oz green or savoy cabbage, cored and thinly shredded
- 3/4 C radicchio, shredded
- 1 med carrot, grated
- 1/2 C scallions, chopped
- 1/2 C celery ribs, finely chopped
- 3/4 C red bell pepper, diced
- 1/4 C red onion, finely diced
- 1/4 C cashews or peanuts, chopped
- 1/4 C cilantro or flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 1 T sesame seeds
- meat from a 1 1/2 lb rotisserie or roasted chicken, coarsely shredded (reserve 1/4 – 1/2 C juice, if possible)
- optional: sugar snap peas, lightly steamed asparagus spears (cut in 1″ pieces on the diagonal), bean sprouts, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, or whatever else you have in the fridge.
In a small sauté pan, toast sesame seeds over medium heat until light brown and fragrant. Cool.
Cut off cores from the romaine heart(s) and discard. Cut 1/4″ slices of romaine, widthwise. Mix with remaining ingredients (including sesame seeds). Pour reserved chicken juices on top and lightly dress (up to two hours ahead, the salad won’t wilt all that much). Season with salt and pepper, toss and serve with any reserved dressing on the side.
- 1/4 C + 3 Tbsp mild olive oil or salad oil
- 2 Tbsp sesame oil
- 2 T lime juice
- 1 T white wine or rice wine vinegar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
- 2 Tbsp brown sugar
- optional: 1/4 tsp fish sauce, 1/4 tsp ground ginger (I don’t care for it, so I leave it out) and spicy-sweet hoisin sauce, to taste (I always think I have a jar, but come salad-making time, I never do)
Whisk all ingredients together. Adjust vinegar and salt to your taste.