Best-Ever Chicken Salad Recipe

I never harboured any hard feelings toward chicken salad. But it always struck me as extraordinarily blah: parched chicken slicked over with mayonnaise, bits of celery or sweet raisins doing the dish no favours.

Then I visited Little Tong Noodle Shop, a newish Chinese restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village. There, chef Simone Tong serves a fresh version in which tender chicken tangles with Thai basil, mint and other herbs, as well as pickled red onions and fermented chilies—not a lick of mayonnaise in sight.

“Once a year, everyone comes home from other cities,” said Ms. Tong of the celebration, which she was lucky enough to catch on a trip to Yunnan. A chicken is boiled and offered to the ancestors, along with duck, fruits, in the hope of securing peace, prosperity and health. After the ceremony, the chicken is shredded and mixed with ginger, garlic and herbs, and shared among the revelers.

In Ms. Tong’s take, the meat is much more tender, poached ever so lightly with Shaoxing , ginger and scallions. She mixes in fish sauce and both lemon and lime juices, as well as plenty of herbs: shiso, mint and Thai basil, plus culantro and laksa leaves, which can be swapped out for easier-to-find cilantro and mint. She also folds in tongue-tickling crunch with a few non-traditional additions: fermented chilies (chili sauce substitutes in the recipe at right), pickled red onions and pickled mustard seeds that pop in your mouth like caviar.

Served as an appetizer at Little Tong, this light, lovely chicken salad makes a nice lunch or dinner with a side of rice noodles. The pickled mustard seeds and red onions can be used to enliven a taco or sandwich, too, so be sure to make a double batch. You’ll want them around anyway—this salad has a tendency to become a habit.

ACTIVE TIME: 1 hour

TOTAL TIME: 7½ hours (includes brining chicken)

SERVES: 6

For brining:

  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 4 cups water
  • 3 medium chicken breasts

For the pickled onions:

  • 1 cup rice vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon dried tarragon
  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
  • ½ teaspoon dried basil
  • ½ small stick cinnamon, broken into pieces
  • 1 medium-large red onion, slice into ½-inch rings
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt

For the pickled mustard seeds:

  • ¼ cup yellow mustard seeds
  • ¼ cup water
  • 2½ tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon plus ¾ teaspoon sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt

For poaching chicken and assembling salad:

  • 3 tablespoons Shaoxing cooking or sake
  • 4 scallions, white part only
  • 3 (4-inch) pieces ginger, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons red chile sauce, such as sambal oelek
  • 1 tablespoon chopped shiso leaves, plus whole leaves for garnish
  • 1 tablespoon chopped culantro or cilantro, plus whole sprigs for garnish
  • 1 teaspoon chopped Thai basil, plus whole leaves for garnish
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh laksa leaves or mint leaves, plus more whole leaves for garnish
  • Zest of 1 lime and 1 lemon, plus juice of ½ lime and ½ lemon

  • In a medium pot, combine kosher salt and cold water. Set over low heat and stir just until salt dissolves. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Add chicken breasts to cooled brine, cover and refrigerate 6-8 hours or overnight.
  • Make pickled red onions: Mix rice vinegar, dried tarragon, dried thyme, dried basil and cinnamon in a bowl and set aside. In a separate bowl, mix sugar and salt. Add onions to sugar-salt mixture, stirring to coat evenly. Cover and let onions rest and sweat 1 hour. Add vinegar mixture to onions. (This can be done up to 1 month ahead.) Roughly chop 3 tablespoons pickled onions and set aside. Reserve the rest for garnish.

  • Make pickled mustard seeds: Mix mustard seeds, ¼ cup water, rice vinegar, sugar and kosher salt in a small pot. Set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until the mixture becomes syrupy, about 8 minutes. Let cool, then refrigerate until ready to use. (Pickled mustard seeds will keep up to one month in an airtight container in the refrigerator.)
  • Drain chicken breasts and discard brine. Fill a large pot halfway with water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add  scallions and ginger. Add chicken breasts and let water come back to a simmer. Once simmering, turn off heat, cover and set aside for 25 minutes. Remove chicken breasts and place in a bowl of ice water to cool. Once cool, use your fingers to tear chicken breasts into large shreds.
  • Toss chicken with fish sauce, 3 tablespoons pickled red onions, 2 tablespoons pickled mustard seeds, red chille sauce, shiso, cilantro, Thai basil, laksa leaves and lemon and lime zests. Let everything marinate 15-30 minutes in the refrigerator. To serve, drizzle in lime and lemon juices, and garnish with additional whole herbs and pickled onions.

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