The best salads have a lot of interest: different textures, different temperatures, the best quality ingredients and a lovely dressing, presentation and often a delicious source of protein.
Asian salads with fresh herbs are inviting. Fresh mint, basil and cilantro add beauty; but when you taste them they also taste of life and risk and nourishment. Herbs have a voice of their own, often transporting us to another land or culture, especially when they’re mixed into ingredients that also echo their origins: ingredients like real fermented soy sauce or fish sauce.
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One of my favorite ingredients is real fish sauce. It’s native to both Thai and Vietnamese cooking and is made with just two ingredients, when made according to tradition: anchovies and sea salt. While anchovies may not evoke mental feelings of pleasure for all, the sauce is appealing to most palates when it’s a component. It’s needed for that perfect authentic flavor. There are many brands of fish sauce available, but only in the last couple of years have I been able to buy and use it again, because of this traditional/Paleo version, made by Red Boat. I definitely did a happy dance when I found this product, because you can’t achieve the right flavor profile without fish sauce in many Asian recipes. And most fish sauces available today are commercially produced with unhealthy ingredients.
The best fried chicken is a bit peppery, and the texture of the coating is crispy, full of flavor, both crunching and tender as you bite into it. I figured out a trick for frying it that doesn’t use too much fat. (I love fat, but it’s pricey and makes for a big ordeal when you have to deep-fry in a lot of it!) This trick gets the chicken cooked through perfectly, without a long fry time that risks cooking the exterior too dark. And it’s not messy or a lot of work.
The trick is to use boneless, skinless chicken thighs. They get dipped in egg and a simple spiced cassava flour coating and fried in only several tablespoons of fat. (I like to use avocado oil + animal fat, both of which do well with extended high heat frying.) Cassava flour lends some of the magic. It functions a lot like white flour, but without the grains and with added gut benefits. The other key to success is opening/unrolling the chicken thigh, that’s already been deboned and splaying it flat, so there’s greater surface area (i.e. more crispy coating goodness) so the chicken cooks through faster. You won’t miss the skin, because the coating is so good. (Or you can debone your own thighs and leave the skin on.)
If you have 10 extra minutes when you make this salad it’s very easy to make it pretty. By thinly slicing juicy and buttery foods, foods like mango, watermelon and avocado, you can make a lovely display of color. Adding fresh herbs for garnish and edible flowers, like the wild mint I picked, adds visual interest. Slicing the fried chicken adds variation (instead of big chunks of meat) and makes eating the salad more accessible. A sprinkling of sesame seeds is pretty and sets the tone for the Asian themed salad.
Create a beautiful composed salad because the process is artistic and fun. Your guests will be pleased and enticed.
Gather the Ingredients
The only ingredients in this salad that need measuring are the dressing and the fried chicken. The rest of the salad should be poetic, using produce that’s traditional to Asian cuisine and in keeping with what’s growing in your area at the time. Right now it’s summer in Oregon. We have abundant watermelons! And lots of fresh mint. I recommend using avocado and mangoes if you can access good ones. Peel them and slice them thinly.
Grab a large platter and spread across the middle one large head of romaine or two heads of butter lettuce, washed and chopped. (Double the quantity for a bigger crowd. This recipe serves 5.) Arrange the avocado and mango by fanning the slices. Create areas of color. Slice the cooling chicken thighs diagonally and place them over the center of the salad. Add seasonal and Asian produce: watermelon, snap peas, bean sprouts, jicama or carrots julienned, green onions, cucumber.
Tuck in lots of fresh herbs: cilantro, mint and/or basil. Drizzle the dressing over all, especially over the veggies. Sprinkle sesame seeds over the chicken. Step back and look at the salad, adjusting as needed so it’s pretty and well-balanced.