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Chinese chicken salad is a popular lunch or dinner dish in the United States (US), with a history that dates back to the 1930s. Despite its name, Chinese chicken salad is not typically eaten in China, and bears little resemblance to traditional Asian cuisine. Many believe that this dish gets its name from the various Chinese-style seasonings used to add flavor to the salad, including ginger, soy, and sesame. In parts of the US, this dish may also be referred to as Mandarin, Asian or Oriental chicken salad.
Food historians have different theories on the origins of Chinese chicken salad. In China, it is relatively uncommon for people to consume raw vegetables, such as those found in salads in the US. Some believe that the modern Chinese chicken salad is based on a dish known as pong pong chicken from the Szechuan region of China. This dish consists of cooked vegetables and chicken in a spicy peanut sauce, but shares little in common with American versions of this salad.
Although chef Wolfgang Puck is often credited with inventing this dish at his famous restaurant Chinois, many believe this recipe actually dates back as far as the 1930s. Some cookbooks from this period include recipes for a deli-style Chinese chicken salad, with sauces or dressings made from mayonnaise or French dressing. In the 1960s and 70s, several California eateries developed their own version of the salad, which included a mustard vinaigrette dressing.
Modern Chinese chicken salad recipes often incorporate the ingredients made famous by the Wolfgang Puck version of this dish. This includes a bed of romaine lettuce topped with shredded chicken, vegetables, almonds, and crunchy fried noodles. The dressing consists of a sesame and ginger-based concoction rather than the traditional mustard or mayonnaise base. Some American fast food chains sell a similar version of this recipe.
Chinese chicken salad may also include deli salads flavored with Chinese seasonings. They consist of chunks of cooked chicken combined with mayonnaise, almonds and soy, ginger, or sesame dressings. This dish may be served on bread or crackers, or placed on a single lettuce leaf for garnishment.
Each restaurant that prepares this dish relies on a slightly different recipe, and many add its own unique ingredients based on regional preferences. Some use Mandarin orange slices for a citrus twist, while others use peanut sauce or crushed peanuts. Crispy fried won-tons and bean sprouts may also be used to add crunch to this salad.