A History of Chinese Salads

Asian Chicken Salad
Getty Images/John E. Kelly

People have been enjoying the nutritious value of a simple salad since ancient times when they used salt to season wild plants and herbs. (In fact, the word salad comes from sal, the Latin for salt). Of course, salads have evolved since those distant days. Today, in addition to greens, salads can be composed of vegetables, pasta, and fruit. Some are more filling, containing meat, poultry, or cheese. More recent inventions include the Waldorf salad -- a simple concoction of celery, walnuts, apples and mayonnaise -- and the Caesar salad, rumored to have been invented by an Italian chef residing in Mexico in the 1920's. While most salads are served cold, a few, such as the German potato salad are meant to be served hot.

Still, whatever the ingredients, we tend to think of a salad as a type of appetizer: served at the beginning of a meal and designed to wet our appetite for the main course. But salads play a different role in Asian cuisine. For one thing, the common variety garden salad is unknown in Asia. For another, a salad such as a noodle salad may make up an entire meal. A salad is often designed to provide a contrast or balance with other dishes since the harmonious blending of textures, colors, and flavors are one of the hallmarks of Chinese cuisine. The crunchy texture of lightly blanched vegetables may balance a soft noodle dish, for example. And, like a sorbet, a salad may be used to clear the palate after a particularly spicy dish.

Another noticeable feature is the amount of care taken in the physical appearance of a Chinese salad. Instead of being tossed in a bowl, salad vegetables -- often blanched instead of being left raw -- are normally carefully arranged on a platter.

Dressings and garnishes are commonly used in Chinese salads. In fact, in ancient times it is likely the Chinese seasoned their plants with soy sauce instead of salt. Some of the more common garnishes used to top salads are cilantro (Chinese parsley), peanuts, and chilies. Lime juice is a frequent ingredient in dressings, while peanut and/or sesame oil are the most common oils used.

Chinese and Asian-Inspired Salad Recipes

  • Asian Vinaigrette This recipe is made with red rice vinegar, but you can substitute red wine vinegar.
  • Asian Coleslaw This fusion dish is made with Chinese greens and mung bean sprouts, topped with a tangy rice vinegar dressing and toasted sesame seeds.
  • Easy Chinese Chicken Salad A California creation, this recipe combines chicken with mandarin oranges and chow mein noodles.
  • Bang Bang Ji Here is the Szechuan version of a chicken salad, also called Bon Bon, Pong Pong, and "strange flavor chicken salad.
  • Cold Asparagus Salad This simple salad takes less than 5 minutes to make and tastes delicious.
  • Spicy Cucumber Salad Cucumbers are coated in a red wine vinegar dressing spiked with minced ginger and red pepper flakes.
  • Spicy Chinese Potato Salad In this recipe the rice vinegar and olive oil dressing gets extra flavor from chile paste.
  • Chinese Noodles in Peanut Sauce Hakka noodles and vegetables are topped with a flavorful dressing made with peanut butter, sesame paste, honey and other seasonings.
  • Chilled Melon Fruit Salad Perfect for those occasions when you want a dessert recipe to impress that's easy to make. Seasonal fruits are lightly coated with a sugar syrup and spooned into melon halves.
  • Chinese Fruit Salad. This colorful fruit salad has a five-spice powder and sugar topping.
  • Turkey, Mandarin, and Poppy Salad The secret ingredient in this salad is Dijon mustard, which thickens the dressing and balances the strong taste of the red wine vinegar.
  • Seven-Layer Chinese Salad With Ramen noodles, peanuts, and an oil and vinegar dressing.
  • Aaloo (Indian Potato Salad) Potato salad the Indian way! This goes well with rice and a meat-based dish.