Crunchy Slaw with Chicken or Tofu Skewers
It was a stroke of good luck that I got the rookie waiter the day I had lunch at Leon’s in Charleston, South Carolina. There for a long weekend with girlfriends, I was so smitten with the salad that I ordered, I asked the waiter what’s in the dressing. Apparently unaware that restaurants keep such trade secrets to themselves, he produced a cheat sheet detailing every ingredient in the salad. I felt like a fisherman who’d just landed the biggest catch as he let me snap a photo of his handout.
Napa Cabbage is Key
Once home, I got busy in the kitchen, doing my best to recreate what Leon’s salad. It’s made of two kinds of cabbage that get shredded as you would for coleslaw. Napa cabbage isn’t as common as other varieties, but is worth seeking out since it has excellent flavor and crunch.
Beyond the cabbage, the salad features fresh herbs, oranges, and a dressing that’s equal parts sweet, tang, and spice. I departed from the restaurant version by skipping the avocado, though you could certainly add it, and using roasted peanuts for crunch rather than fried shallots (you can find fried shallots in Asian markets if you’re interested in doing it that way).
Marinated Chicken or Tofu
The dressing for the salad doubles as a marinade for chicken or tofu that gets threaded onto skewers and either grilled or broiled. If you have time, get the marinade going well in advance of cooking. If not, an hour of marinating will do just fine. Also, you can skip the skewers entirely and serve this as a side salad to other Asian-inspired dishes, such as this Miso Salmon or these Banh Mi Sandwiches.
Sambal Oelek for Spice
While the salad is inspired largely by the Thai pantry, the heat in the dressing comes from an Indonesian hot sauce called sambal oelek. It’s made of red chiles, vinegar, and salt and is sold in jars in the Asian food section of many supermarkets and specialty stores, near where you might find sriracha. It’s a newish staple in my pantry that adds a flavorful kick to my cooking. If you can’t find sambal oelek, substitute sriracha or another hot sauce, adjusting the amount based on your palate.
A Light Bite
This is just the kind of supper I want when I’m in the mood for something light and bright, but packed with flavor and texture. And every time I eat it I will think of our sweet rookie waiter and a delightful girls weekend in Charleston.
If you like this salad, you might like:
Chicken Salad with Tangy Miso Vinaigrette, a recipe I developed for Simply Recipes
Crunchy Salad with Chicken (or Tofu) Skewers
A light, bright salad that's bursting with flavor thanks to the sweet, hot tang of its dressing. The hot sauce here is sambal olek, which hails not from Thailand, but Indonesia. Feel free to use sriracha or another hot sauce instead, making sure to adjust the amount since different sauces have different levels of spiciness.
- ½ cup lime juice (3 to 4 juicy limes)
- 2 tablespoons sambal oelek (see notes)
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce (use soy sauce for a vegan version of the recipe)
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 2 ½ tablespoons packed brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning the skewers
- 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breast or firm, drained tofu
- ½ head Napa cabbage, shredded (about 5 cups)
- ½ head red cabbage, shredded (about 9 cups)
- 2 large navel oranges
- 2/3 cup roughly chopped fresh basil or fresh cilantro
- ½ cup roughly chopped fresh mint
- 3 scallions, thinly sliced white and light green parts only
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup roasted salted peanuts
Cut the chicken (or tofu) into 1 to 1 ½-inch cubes and put in an 8×8-inch baking dish.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the lime juice, sambal oelek, fish sauce, canola oil, brown sugar, and salt. Pour about ⅓ of the dressing over the chicken (or tofu) and toss well. Marinate in the fridge for at least one hour (up to overnight).
In a large bowl, toss together the shredded cabbage, basil, mint, and scallions. Set the oranges on a cutting board and use a serrated edge or very sharp knife to shear off the peel and pith. Cut in quarters through the stem ends and then slice crosswise into ¼-inch triangles. Add to the salad.
Thread the marinated chicken/tofu onto wooden skewers and lightly season with salt and black pepper. Broil or grill the skewers on all sides until cooked through.
Drizzle most of the dressing over the salad and toss well. Taste and add more dressing if needed. Divide into serving bowls, scatter peanuts on top, and serve with skewers on the side.
Notes: Sambal oelek is a spicy Indonesian chile sauce. You can find it in the Asian section of many supermarkets and specialty stores. If you don’t have sambal oelek, substitute sriracha and start with just a few teaspoons, increasing the amount as needed to taste.