Some years ago, while traveling in Vietnam, I decided to order room service at my time-warp hotel in Saigon.
Hmm. … Let’s see. Chicken salad. Why not? I love chicken salad!
No doubt I was expecting an American-style, mayonnaise-dressed concoction. But when the bellboy in the funny hat tiptoed into my room with a domed tray, I was quite surprised by the big reveal.
The marinated bird before me looked nothing like my Southern grandmother’s. No mayo, mustard or pickle. No pecans, grapes or celery.
Instead, it was a mound of Asian-style chicken salad meant to be picked up with with chopsticks, not spread on crackers or bread. As I recall, it was moistened with a little oil, lime juice and fish sauce, and mixed with fresh herbs, slices of cucumber and crushed peanuts.
And yet, on this crazy-humid day when eating hot food seemed like a terrible idea, it tasted so right: a perfect lunchtime pick-me-up. The only thing it called for was a glass of beer.
This was my chicken-salad epiphany, a revelation that making salad with scraps of leftover bird is more than just a comfort of home. It’s a simple pleasure that spans the globe.
Pretty much every culture you encounter (and virtually every cookbook I pick up these days) has some version of it, whether created with roasted, poached, rotisserie or fried bird; tossed with lettuce, noodles or bread; or moistened with mayo, oil, vinegar, soy, sesame or peanut sauce.
I have many food obsessions. Chicken salad, if you haven’t already guessed, is one of them. Yet I rarely order it at a restaurant, because I know I can probably do better at home.
Lately, I’ve been leafing through cookbooks, experimenting, trying new twists and techniques, all under the chicken-salad umbrella, if you will.
In Carolyn Phillips’ fabulous “All Under Heaven” (Ten Speed Press/McSweeney’s, $40), I spotted Manchurian Chicken Salad built with dried mung-bean sheets (which break up into free-form noodles when immersed in boiling water), cucumber and a gently sweet sesame dressing that I know I could eat with a spoon. Alas, no mung-bean sheets at my usual Buford Highway spot, so I’m saving that one for later.
Andrea Nguyen’s “The Pho Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press, $22) took me back to Vietnam with a prickly, Hanoi-style chicken and rice-noodle salad topped with scallions, cilantro, mint, chopped peanuts and fried shallots. To soothe the palate, little bowls of chicken pho broth are served on the side. (Sounds like an absolute knockout! Won’t somebody please make it and invite me over?)
In the end, the Asian recipe I knew I had to try was the Burmese chicken salad in Desmond Tan and Katy Leay’s “Burma Superstar: Addictive Recipes from the Crossroads of Southeast Asia” (Tenspeed, $29.99). It’s a cinch to assemble from rotisserie chicken, the flavors bold, complex and haunting, and in putting it together, I learned a couple of nifty tricks.
A sprinkling of toasted chickpea flour imparts nuttiness, while crispy fried onions and garlic add crunch. The dressing is nothing more than lime juice and fish sauce. It’s a keeper, a recipe I plan on revisiting often.
While traditional chicken salad has always looked at home in a cup or bed of lettuce, the greens always seemed like an afterthought to me. It was the mayo sludge with tarragon and almonds that sent me to the clouds.
I wouldn’t complain, though, if you served me Melissa Clark’s extraordinary Classic Roasted Chicken Salad with Green Aioli and Chicken-Skin Croutons.
For this showstopper, the New York Times food columnist pulls the skin off roast chicken, chops it up and bakes it to a crisp with cubes of bread. Then the cracklings (or gribenes, if you’re familiar with Jewish patois) are piled on a bed of arugula tossed with fresh vegetables and the chicken you’ve plucked from the bird. The coup de grace: A luxurious garlicky aioli that gets its green tint and zingy taste from from basil and tarragon is placed in a separate bowl for dipping the chicken.
You can use a store-bought rotisserie chicken here; but if you go the extra step and make Clark’s Salt & Pepper Roasted Chicken, you’ll elevate the dish. (In fact, you can use that recipe as a foundation for any of the chicken-salad recipes in this article.)
I asked Clark why she thinks this salad pushes all the right buttons.
“What I love about it is all the contrasts,” she wrote back in an email. “There are so many different kinds of crunch going on: a hard, thick audible crunch from the bread, the softer, oilier salty crunch of the skin, the juicy crunch of vegetables. Then you’ve got the satiny richness of the aioli to bring it altogether. I think diverse textures is the key to a meal be satisfying, which is why, although some people wouldn’t consider a salad to be a meal, this one would probably work for everyone.”
That’s what we call a winner-winner, chicken-salad dinner.
You may use Melissa Clark’s Salt & Pepper Roasted Chicken as a foundation for any of these salads. It’s perfect for making Clark’s Classic Roasted Chicken Salad with Green Aioli and Chicken-Skin Croutons, although rotisserie chicken is fine, too. (For the Burma Superstar Chicken Salad and the Featherweight Slaw, you can use virtually any kind of cooked chicken: poached, roasted, rotisserie or fried.)