This salad is crunchy, clean-tasting and zingy with lime, ginger and chili, so it’s great for making you feel healthier and less blah about winter. It’s a delicious combination of raw vegetables (all your five-a-day), tender chicken with a crispy coat, and a delicious dressing inspired by East Asian flavours. If salads can be said to exhibit personality, this one has charisma. Its flavours and textures are exciting.
This version is based on various recipes I’ve tinkered with and re-combined, notably from San Franciscan Joyce Jue, whose Far East Café collection of casual Asian cooking is one of my favourites for its manageably selective number of desirable and completely reliable dishes. Rick Stein uses a similar Vietnamese dipping sauce to Jue’s, made with fish sauce and lime, in his salad of leftover holiday turkey, much more delicious than it might sound. The recipe I’m sharing here is also inspired by my memory of a favourite ‘Chinese chicken salad’ I used to get at a deli in the San Francisco Bay area when I could get there before they sold out. It’s a winner.
Making it is a three-part process: 1) slicing the veg; 2) cooking the chicken; and 3) mixing the dressing. All are easy and can be done ahead, ready to combine when you’re ready. If you shallow fry the chicken breast with a coating of egg white and cornstarch as I suggest here, the salad is a meal-in-one, the crunchy coat serving as the carbohydrate. Pounding the chicken breasts until thin and even will give you more surface area for a golden crust. If you’d rather not coat and fry the chicken, you can simply grill it with a brush of the marinade, and this will make it an even healthier dish. And of course it’s a brilliant way to use leftover chicken, or whatever bird you have to hand. Duck is great, too, should you have a spare leg about the place.
The dressed salad holds for a couple of hours once you add the dressing; the components will soften somewhat, but the flavours combine nicely this way (and the chicken is good at room temperature). If you serve the salad straight after adding the dressing, it has more crunch, and that’s good too.
The amount of dressing here may not seem enough at first, but mix it in well and it will be just right, assuming you use this quantity of salad ingredients. You don’t want to drown them in dressing, just moisten them — a drizzle of sesame oil over the finished dish will lubricate it a bit more. If you like, have some chili oil or extra sliced chillies on the table for those who like it hot, and a halved lime for anyone who fancies another squeeze of zingy citrus. (Rick Stein adds peanuts in his turkey version. I would rather save those for another East Asian salad I like that has a peanut butter and soy dressing and noodles, but don’t let that stop you.)
Two other points to mention: cook the chicken over high enough heat to brown it quickly so it doesn’t get dry; and slice the vegetables as thinly and uniformly as you can for best texture and mixability.
East Asian chicken salad
Adapted from Joyce Jue’s Far East Café (1996); and Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey (2009)
Serves 2 as a main course, or 3 as a lighter lunch
For the chicken:
- 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (not too big)
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- a pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- a 2.5cm (1-inch) knob fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
- 1 egg white, lightly beaten
- about 40g (roughly 1/3) cup corn flour (cornstarch)
- About 3-4 tablespoons oil for shallow frying (peanut oil or coconut oil are great here, but use any neutral vegetable oil)
For the salad:
- 1-2 peeled carrots, finely grated or julienned (about 70g)
- 1 large handful bean sprouts (about 100g)
- the leaves from a small bunch of fresh coriander, mostly chopped (keep a couple of sprigs for garnish)
- 3-4 mint leaves
- 2 spring onions (scallions), finely sliced, including the green
- about 4 radishes, thinly sliced
- about 12 sugar snap peas, julienned (about 50g)
- 150g (about 5 ounces) Chinese (Napa) cabbage, finely sliced — this is about half a cabbage
- 1½ teaspoons each of black and white sesame seeds (or 1 tablespoon of one kind)
For the dressing:
- 1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 tablespoon Chinese Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 ½ teaspoons sugar or brown sugar, or 1 teaspoon maple syrup
- 1 small garlic clove, very finely minced
- another 2.5cm (1-inch) knob fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
- 1-2 red chillies, finely minced
- 3 tablespoons flavourless vegetable oil (I don’t recommend using olive oil here)
- about 2 teaspoons sesame oil to drizzle over the finished salad
- Optional to serve:
- 1 halved fresh lime to squeeze over at table
- an extra chili or two, julienned — or chili oil — to apply at table
- an extra spring onion to garnish
1. Prep the vegetables and sesame seeds:
- Combine in a large bowl the bean sprouts, grated or julienned carrot, and the thinly sliced sugar snap peas, green onion and radish.
- Finely shred the Chinese cabbage, starting at the leaf end and including a bit of the white rib, and add it to the bowl. Mix all the vegetables together well but gently and set aside until ready to add the herbs, chicken and dressing.
- Roast the sesame seeds for 10-15 minutes in a 175C/350F oven; or dry fry on the stovetop for about 5 minutes; set aside to cool completely.
2. Pound, marinate and cook the chicken:
- Place the chicken breasts in a plastic food bag and pound to an even thickness of about 1.3cm (½ inch) using a rolling pin or meat pounder. Bash gently yet decisively, spreading out the chicken as you go to help relax the fibres.
- Mix together the soy sauce, ginger and garlic, and massage the marinade into both sides of the flattened chicken (you can do this in the plastic bag if it’s still intact), and set aside until ready to cook.
- When ready, put a large frying pan onto medium-high heat with the oil. While it’s heating, lightly beat an egg white in a shallow bowl and coat the chicken pieces in it completely, wiping off the excess.
- To coat the chicken in the cornflour, it’s easiest to put the chicken into a clean plastic bag with the cornstarch and shake well until the chicken is completely coated.
- When the oil is very hot, but not smoking, add the cornflour-coated chicken breasts and cook about 3 minutes per side, just until golden, about 6-8 minutes in total. Don’t overcook. You’ll be able to tell it’s cooked through when a skewer comes out with no resistance. If necessary to avoid crowding the pan, cook the two breasts separately.
- Set the cooked chicken aside on a rack to cool a little and pat off excess oil with a kitchen towel (the rack discourages steaming and keeps the coat crispy).
3. Mix the dressing:
Combine all the dressing ingredients except the sesame oil in a small bowl and stir well.
4. Assemble the salad:
- Slice the cooked chicken breasts thinly and put them on top of the sliced vegetables in the bowl.
- Add the chopped coriander and mint, along with most of the toasted sesame seeds, reserving a few to sprinkle on top.
- Give the dressing another good whisk and pour it over the ingredients in the bowl. Mix everything thoroughly yet gently, massaging in the dressing to coat every piece. Take your time and keep your touch as light as you can.
- Decant the salad onto a large serving platter and drizzle over the sesame oil. Garnish as you please with more fresh coriander, spring onion and thinly sliced chilis. As a final touch, scatter over the last of the sesame seeds. Add any extra lime juice or chillis to taste at the table.