Doing Chicken Right

How to avoid glorified Americanese dressed up as ethnic kweezeen

I've always had a love/hate relationship with dishes that purport to be of foreign origin but are really just glorified Americanese dressed up as ethnic kweezeen. There's something ignorant and vaguely unseemly — like wearing a “Born in the USA” T-shirt to the ruins at Teotihuacan — about going to a Mexican restaurant and ordering chili cheese nachos. Or going to a trattoria and asking for the “Italian special” — a pizza piled with more cold cuts than picnic day at Oscar Mayer. Or trying to dress up steak fries as something Franco- by calling them frites.

Most disturbing to me, though, is the ubiquitous Chinese chicken salad, an umbrella organization of a dish liberally sprinkled on menus ranging from Applebee's and Fresh Choice to the corner Sichuan restaurant. It's especially disturbing to me because, well, I have to admit I'm crazy-go-nuts for it — especially when the weather is warm and the Tsingtao beer is cheap. But frankly, food snob that I aspire to be, you'd have to poke me in the eye with a splintered chopstick before I'd order it at a good Chinese restaurant.

Now before we cut to the dish, maybe we should establish exactly what I'm talking about.

At the extreme Yankee end of the spectrum, there's the Oriental chicken salad, a recipe so far removed from its country of origin it never got the memo that we don't call it the Orient anymore. Heinous contributions to this version that I've encountered include yogurt, pineapple chunks, ham, cheese, and even cornflakes, draped with a dressing that throws together (in part or whole) honey, orange juice, mayonnaise, cider vinegar, and Dijon mustard.

Less egregiously Western (though still high on the cultural embarrassment scale) is a rendition I recently had — believe it or not — at California Crisp in Stonestown Mall. Here, romaine lettuce was combined with chunks of chicken and tossed with crispy noodle bits, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, and slivered almonds in a tangy-sweet vinaigrette.

And at the opposite end of the spectrum is Henry's Hunan's (locations at 1016 Bryant; 110 Natoma; and 924 Sansome, 956-7727) cold chicken noodle salad. Blessedly, the menu simply lists this sublime dish as “cold noodle salad.” And since it's on my Top 10 list of Hunan pioneer Henry Chung's creations (along with the spicy combo of smoked ham and chicken called Marty's Special, and Diane's Meat Pie), you can imagine my relief that he spared me the shame of having to utter the telltale words.

To be fair, other than being chilled, this dish is about as close to an Applebee's Chinese chicken salad as clam chowder is to bouillabaisse. For one thing, it actually has origins in China, though it's no doubt been dumbed down a bit for American tastes. For another, no actual lettuce is used in the making of this salad. It begins with cold linguine-width rice-flour noodles, on which are piled hand-shredded roast chicken, scallions, and cucumber slivers sprinkled with crushed peanuts. The whole thing is tossed in a dressing — really more of a sauce — that combines sesame oil, peanut butter, chicken broth, ginger, garlic, red chili, and rice vinegar in a wonderfully light and tangy blend that's spicy enough to make you sweat and cold enough to keep you from overheating.

Best of all, with the dish's authentic Chinese roots, and a popularity that knows no borders, you can order it loud and proud and not feel like a cultural heel. Just don't get it with a diet Pepsi.

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