Ask any Los Angeles expat what food they miss most from the California sun and it’s likely they’ll respond with Chinese chicken salad (although it might be a toss up between that and tacos). A quintessential California dish, Chinese chicken salad isn’t particularly Chinese, but it’s an archetype of The Golden State. After its arrival to the food scene in the 1960s, West Coast diners were instantly captivated by that tangle of crispy wontons and telltale tinned mandarin segments.
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These days, while it’s still plenty easy to find it in a slew of California restaurants, Chinese chicken salad remains a dish that can be replicated at home. Recipe developer Eleanor Maidment has designed her own version in her cookbook “California Living + Eating,” a book replete with recipes inspired by the state. Her replication, titled Asian-Style Chicken Salad, boasts the same chopped chicken breast, carrots, and cabbage, along with a few new friends: shredded spring onions, rice noodles, sugar snap peas, nuts, red chili, and mango.
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Tinned mandarins are noticeably absent—replaced by the sweetness of sliced mango—and the traditional soy sauce-based dressing is swapped for roasted cashew dressing, whisked with maple syrup, fish sauce, and lime juice. And while the salad isn’t topped with a handful of crisped-up wontons, there’s still the crunch of cashews and the chewiness of vermicelli noodles. Despite the few changes, it undeniably still elicits that same taste of California sunshine.
Recipes excerpted with permission from California: Living + Eating by Eleanor Maidment, published by Hardie Grant Books May 2019, RRP.
Asian-Style Chicken Salad with Roasted Cashew Dressing Recipe
The Chinese chicken salad is an archetypally Californian dish. An invention of the 1960s when ‘exotic’ flavours were all the rage, and original ingredients commonly included (ahem) tinned mandarin segments and crispy wonton strips. There was very little that was actually Chinese about it, but Californian diners were hooked. And its popularity really has endured as you still find evolved versions of it everywhere. This is mine. Sometimes I arrange all the prepared ingredients on a board with some Vietnamese rice paper wrappers and turn them into summer rolls, using the dressing as a dipping sauce. It’s a nice way to mix it up, and fun for a dinner party. This recipe is just as good without the chicken, too.
Asian-Style Chicken Salad with Roasted Cashew Dressing
- 100 g (3 ½ oz) dried vermicelli rice noodles
- Splash of groundnut (peanut) oil
- 1/4 small red cabbage, finely shredded with a mandoline (about 150 g/5 oz prepared weight)
- 2 large carrots, shredded with a julienne peeler (about 150 g/ 5 oz prepared weight)
- 2 spring onions (scallions), cut into 5 cm (2 in) pieces and shredded lengthways
- 100 g (5 oz) sugar snap peas, sliced on the diagonal
- 1 red chilli, seeded and sliced
- 1 ripe mango, peeled, cut to make 2 ‘cheeks’ and sliced into strips
- 2 cooked chicken breasts, shredded
- Handful of mint leaves
- Handful of Thai basil leaves
- 100 g (5 oz/ 2/3 cup) unsalted cashews
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- 1 ½ tablespoons fish sauce
- 3 tablespoons water
- Juice of 1 lime
- Preheat a fan oven to 160˚C (320˚F/gas 4).
- To make the dressing, put the cashews in a roasting tray (pan) and roast for 5 minutes. Stir through the maple syrup and roast for another 5 minutes until golden. Tip straight onto a piece of baking parchment (they’ll stick to the tray otherwise) and cool.
- Meanwhile, prepare the vermicelli noodles according to the packet instructions. I usually soak them in a bowl of cold water for 10 minutes, then drain. If they’re still a bit hard, cover them with just-boiled water from the kettle. Immediately drain in a sieve (fine-mesh strainer) and rinse under the cold tap, then toss with a splash of groundnut oil to stop them sticking and leave them to dry on a double layer of paper towel.
- To finish the dressing, put the fish sauce, lime juice, water and two-thirds of the roasted cashews in a high-speed blender. Blitz until smooth, adding a splash more water, if needed. Roughly chop the remaining cashews.
- Toss the veg, chilli and noodles in a large bowl. Top with the mango and shredded chicken and spoon over the dressing. Scatter with the herbs and the remaining cashews.
Header image by Nassima Rothacker.