Chinese Chicken Salad
Although it's not a traditional Chinese dish, Chinese Chicken Salad is an indulgent yet healthy meal bursting with a colorful array of textures and tastes. This makes it a fun appetizer or side salad, but it's also satisfying enough to serve to guests for brunch. Preparing all the toppings requires a bit of work, but I have some tricks that make it easy and ensure you end up with super tender and moist chicken.
Table of contents
Why This Recipe Works?
- The chicken tenders are tender, juicy, and flavorful because they're gently poached in well-salted water.
- The key to making any salad enjoyable is to include a variety of textures and tastes. This salad has enough variation, so you get a different combo of the three in every bite.
- The dressing has a tantalizing balance of spicy ginger and mustard balanced out with sweet orange juice and hoisin sauce which makes it both refreshing and comforting.
Ingredients for Chinese Chicken Salad
- Chicken - I usually prefer chicken thighs in most dishes, but for Chinese chicken salad, white meat works better. The trick to keeping it moist and juicy is gently poaching it in well-salted water and then rapidly chilling it once it's cooked. Chicken tenders are a strip of very tender meat that's attached under the breast. It works best for this recipe because it cooks through much faster than a whole breast, but chicken breast will work as well if you can't find chicken tenders near you. You could also substitute another protein such as edamame or fried tofu.
- Almonds - Almonds provide a pleasant crunch and rich nutty flavor to the salad. I like to use sliced almonds because they're more delicate than chopped or slivered almonds, but if you can't find them sliced, either of the other options will work. Other nuts or seeds such as cashews, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds will also work great.
- Wonton wrappers - Baked wonton wrappers provide the other crunchy element to this Asian salad. I like brushing them with toasted sesame oil and sprinkling them with a bit of salt to give them some flavor, but this is optional. Other options to add crunch to the salad include fried ramen noodles, chow mein noodles, or fried onions.
- Napa cabbage - Napa cabbage, also called "Chinese cabbage", is a type of cabbage with broad leaves, a thick white stem, and a crispy texture that's closer to lettuce than Western cabbage. It's used in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cuisines, and the leaves are the thickest and sweetest in winter. If you can't find it, you can substitute other crispy leafy greens such as Iceberg lettuce or Romaine lettuce.
- Scallions - Chopped scallions (a.k.a. green onions) add a mild onion flavor and a pop of dark green color to the salad.
- Red cabbage - Red cabbage wasn't part of the original recipe for Chinese chicken salad, but I like adding it because it provides a nice color contrast to the orange and green colors of the dish. The leaves are also rich in anthocyanins which are powerful antioxidants.
- Mandarins - Mandarins are an Asian variety of citrus that's thought to be a progenitor of the common sweet orange. I used canned ones because they come peeled, but you can also use fresh mandarins. The only drawback is you'll not only want to remove the peel, but you also want to peel the membranes off of each segment. This is a lot of work.
- Carrots - Carrots provide vibrant orange color and sweet crunch to the salad.
- Cilantro - Aside from their emerald green hue, cilantro also adds a refreshing herbal flavor to the salad. If it's not your thing, you can leave it out or substitute it for another herb you like.
Ingredients for Asian Ginger Dressing
- Hoisin sauce - Hoisin sauce is a thick, sweet sauce that includes fermented bean paste and Chinese five spice. This gives it loads of umami, along with a fragrant aroma. It's a core component of the dressing and would be hard to substitute with just one ingredient.
- Hot mustard - Chinese hot mustard is potent and spicy in a similar way to wasabi. It adds a nice kick to the dressing, but you can substitute regular Western mustard if you don't like your food too spicy.
- Rice vinegar - Rice vinegar brings tartness to the dressing, and I like it because it's relatively mild amongst vinegar and has a clean flavor that isn't going to get in the way. If you can't find it, apple cider vinegar is the closest in taste.
- Oil - Adding oil to the dressing and then emulsifying it with the other ingredients gives it enough viscosity to cling to the vegetables without dripping to the bottom of the plate.
- Orange juice - Orange juice adds sweetness and tanginess to the dressing, along with a citrus flavor that works well with ginger and sesame.
- Soy sauce - Soy sauce adds both umami and salt to the dressing. I used a Chinese light soy sauce, but dark Japanese soy sauce like Kikkoman will work too. If you want to make this gluten-free, use tamari or coconut aminos.
- Toasted sesame oil - Toasted sesame oil (not to be confused with plain sesame oil) is dark amber or brown in color. It has a rich nutty flavor that's a trademark part of many Asian salad dressings.
- Ginger - Fresh ginger is where this dressing gets its zing from. I recommend grating the ginger and squeezing the pulp to extract the ginger juice. This avoids getting stringy bits of ginger in the salad.
- Salt - Seasoning the dressing with enough soy sauce to get it salty enough to season the vegetables would cover up all the other flavors here. That's why I use extra salt to increase the salinity without affecting the balance of flavors.
How to Make Chinese Chicken Salad
To get the best texture from your leafy vegetables, I recommend washing and soaking them in a large bowl of water until you're ready to use them.
The first things you want to prepare for the salad are the crunchy toppings. This can be done up to a few days in advance. Start by preheating the oven to 350° F (180°C). Next, spread the sliced almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet. I usually line the sheet with parchment paper to make cleanup easier. Next, bake the almonds in the preheated oven until they're golden brown and fragrant. This should take about five minutes, but be careful because the almonds will brown quickly once they start taking on color.
To make the crispy wonton strips, just lay the wrappers out and brush the toasted sesame oil onto both sides of the wrappers. Sprinkle on a pinch of salt. Line the wrappers up so they're easier to cut, and use a sharp knife to slice them into strips. Transfer the wonton strips to a baking sheet and add twists and curves into each strip to give them a random shape (making it easier to mound them up). You can also deep fry the wonton strips if you want.
To make the Asian salad dressing, I usually start by dissolving the hot mustard into the hoisin sauce in a small bowl so you don't end up with any clumps of mustard. Then, you can add rice vinegar, orange juice, soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, ginger, and salt. Whisk the mixture together until the oil has emulsified with the other ingredients. Alternatively, you could make a triple or quadruple batch in a mason jar or squeeze bottle and shake it to emulsify.
To poach the chicken, add the water and salt to a pot with a lid and bring it to a full boil over high heat. While waiting, prepare a bowl of ice water to chill the chicken when it's done.
Add the chicken tenders to the boiling water, cover it with a lid, and let the water come back to a full boil before turning off the heat. Let the chicken poach in hot water for four to five minutes. You can see if the chicken is done by removing a piece and splitting it through the thickest part. The chicken is cooked when it is fully opaque and has no translucent parts, the color of raw chicken. Transfer the cooked chicken to the bowl of ice water to chill it rapidly.
Once the chicken has chilled, shred the tenders with your hands by pulling away strips, following the meat's grain. Drizzle a spoonful of dressing onto the chicken and toss to coat evenly.
Now you can drain and dry the leafy greens and cut them up. Watch the video below to see how I cut the veggies.
Once all your ingredients are ready, it's time to assemble your Chinese Chicken Salad. I like to mound it on a plate, but a salad bowl will also work. Start by piling up the Napa cabbage in the center and then topping it with a generous sprinkle of sliced almonds and scallions. Then you can arrange the chicken, carrots, mandarins, red cabbage, and cilantro on top of the greens. Since there is a lot of chicken, I usually create two wedges of chicken and then divide the remaining sections into 4 segments with a topping on each one.
To finish the salad, top it with a mound of crispy wontons and serve it with the Asian ginger dressing. The vegetables will release water as soon as they're dressed, so I recommend dressing the salad at the table when you're ready to eat it.
Other Asian Salad Recipes
- Seaweed Salad
- Kani Salad
- Basil Chicken Lettuce Wraps
- Soba Salad
- Japanese Potato Salad
- Crispy Chicken with Scallion Sauce
The Chinese Chicken Salad was most likely created by Sylvia Cheng Wu at her Santa Monica restaurant called Madame Wu's Garden. It was a popular hangout for Hollywood A-listers in the 1960s, and as legend has it, Cary Grant was a regular there and asked her for a Chinese-style chicken salad based on a dish he'd had elsewhere. Quick thinking Wu put together a salad inspired by a dish from her childhood with chicken and a variety of vegetables.
These days, this Asian chicken salad sits in the pantheon of great salads alongside the Cobb, Caesar, and Niçoise salads. It's usually made with napa cabbage, carrots, scallions, and mandarin oranges, topped with crunchy almonds and wontons. The dressing is tangy, sweet, and sour with a spicy kick from ginger and mustard.
- 40 grams sliced almonds
- 6 wonton wrappers
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- pinch salt
- 2 teaspoons hoisin sauce
- ½ teaspoon hot mustard
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon orange juice (or syrup from mandarins)
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 cups water
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 250 grams chicken tenders
- 230 grams napa cabbage (shredded)
- 20 grams scallions (chopped)
- 100 grams red cabbage (shredded)
- 130 grams canned mandarins (drained)
- 50 grams carrot (peeled and julienned)
- 30 grams cilantro (leaves picked from stems)
- Preheat the oven to 350° F (180°C).
- Spread the almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake them for about 5 minutes or until they're golden brown. Once they start browning, they will burn quickly, so keep a close eye on them.
- For the wontons, lay them out in a single layer on a cutting board and then brush both sides with the sesame oil. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt.
- Use a sharp knife to cut the wontons into thin strips and place them on a baking sheet, twisting them to give them random shapes.
- Bake the wontons for 5 minutes or until they're golden brown and crisp.
- For the ginger dressing, mix the hoisin sauce and hot mustard to dissolve. Add the remaining dressing ingredients and whisk until the dressing is smooth and creamy.
- For the chicken, prepare a bowl of ice water.
- Bring the water and salt to a boil in a pot with a lid over high heat. Add the chicken tenders and cover the pot with a lid. When the water returns to a boil, turn off the heat and let the chicken poach for 4-5 minutes or until it's cooked.
- When the chicken is cooked, transfer it to the ice water to stop the cooking.
- Once the chicken has cooled down, remove it from the water and shred it with your hands by pulling away strips of chicken along the grain. Pour a tablespoon of the dressing on the chicken and toss to coat.
- Prepare all of the vegetables for the salad. You can watch the video above on how to cut each vegetable.
- To assemble the Chinese Chicken Salad, mound up the shredded Napa cabbage in the center of a large plate or salad bowl.
- Sprinkle on the scallions and toasted almonds.
- Arrange the shredded chicken in two sections around the salad.
- Add the carrots and mandarins in two sections on opposite sides of the plate.
- Fill in the remaining sections with the red cabbage and cilantro.
- Top the salad with the wontons and serve the salad with the remaining dressing on the side. Alternatively, you can toss the whole salad in a big bowl with the dressing and serve it pre-dressed, but the salad needs to be eaten right away if you do it this way.