Mandarin Orange Chicken Salad is a popular lunch dish on many American restaurant menus, and is easy to make at home! This recipe combines plenty of crunchy vegetables with juicy chicken, crispy noodles, and a plum-ginger vinaigrette for an impressive presentation.
I think many of us have been there: you’re sitting in a restaurant for lunch with friends, when a tray passes the table for another destination holding an epic-looking, sky-high Chicken Salad. Eyes widen, conversation might briefly slow, and you think, “Whoa! Look at that salad!”
Yes? No? Am I the only one who can hone in on a well-embellished chicken salad a mile away?
Granted, the “Chinese” Chicken Salad concept that has has become a staple on many American restaurant lunch menus is completely inauthentic in terms of Chinese cuisine. Widely thought to have originated in California in the 1960’s, this twist on a chopped salad is an American creation.
It’s also a recipe that’s broadly defined, varying in ingredients from the base of vegetables used to the dressing. As I see it, that just makes it all the more open to customization when recreating it at home.
Inauthentic? Yes. A bit vague? Yes. Delicious? Absolutely!
Building the Salad Base
One of the hallmarks of a good Mandarin Orange Chicken Salad is an abundance of crisp, crunchy vegetables. I like to make my salad with thinly-sliced red cabbage, iceberg lettuce, sliced snow peas, carrots, and scallions.
You can swap out or add any vegetables you enjoy. Green Napa cabbage is a classic, and for an all cabbage base, you can use it in place of the iceberg lettuce. Red bell peppers are also a great addition, as are bean sprouts.
To keep the texture consistent, thinly slicing or shredding any vegetables you use is key. You’ll need about a quarter of a small head of cabbage and lettuce for this recipe. Use your chef’s knife to cut thin slices along the long end of the cored wedges. The slices will separate into shreds.
You can use the shredding disk on your food processor to make even quicker work of the prep. I especially like using it for shredding carrots.
Making the Plum Vinaigrette
I love the vinaigrette that I use on this chicken salad. It’s reminiscent of the Sesame Plum dressing at the Cheesecake Factory, though not an exact copycat recipe.
My vinaigrette starts with a base of sweet-tangy plum sauce, which you can buy in the International aisle at the grocery store, or at Asian markets. I whisk the sauce with fresh grated ginger, garlic, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, canola oil, and just a touch of sesame oil for a warm, toasted flavor.
If you like a spicy dressing, a touch (or more) of Sriracha does the trick. I like to start conservatively, and add it to taste.
Heading to the market? Check out my Chinese-Inspired Cooking: Pantry Essentials guide to read more about these ingredients.
What Kind of Chicken Should I Use?
You’ll need cooked boneless, skinless chicken breasts, either cubed or shredded. I like to use poached chicken for its juicy, tender texture.
This recipe is also a great way to use leftover roasted or rotisserie chicken. Some store bought rotisserie chickens can be on the salty side, so if you’re using one, be mindful of that when seasoning your salad.
Since both poached and roasted chicken can be cooked a few days in advance, this recipe is great for meal prepping and busy schedules.
It wouldn’t be an epic entree salad without the add-ins! I like to start with juicy mandarin orange segments. You can either used jarred or fresh, if they’re in-season at your market.
We always buy Satsumas during the holiday season, which are my favorite mandarin orange variety. They’re especially sweet and juicy, and such a great addition to this salad. This recipe often makes an appearance with them on our table in the late fall and early winter months.
Want to read more about mandarin orange varieties? Check out this article from Harvest to Table.
A few sliced almonds add a nutty, toasted flavor and crunch, along with what is perhaps everyone’s favorite add-in, crispy noodles. You can either make your own, using my recipe for Fried Wonton Strips, or buy a bag of crunchy noodles (often labeled “Chow Mein Noodles”) at the grocery store.
When making my own, I like to top the salad with a mound of the wonton strips for presentation, breaking them up into the salad as it’s scooped and served. If you prefer the crispy strips tossed into the salad, you can either break them up into pieces before adding them, or cut the wontons into thinner strips before frying.
Gently add the mandarins, almonds, and crispy noodles after you’ve tossed the salad with the vinaigrette. The fruit and nuts especially are delicate; handle them as little as possible for the prettiest plating.
Mandarin Orange Chicken Salad
- 2 cups shredded red cabbage
- 1 cup shredded iceberg lettuce
- 1/2 cup thinly-sliced snow peas
- 1/2 cup shredded carrots
- 1/3 cup thinly-sliced scallions
- 2-3 cups cooked shredded chicken breast (poached, roasted, or rotisserie)
- 1/4 cup sliced almonds
- 3/4 cup mandarin orange segments
- 1/4 cup plum sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon grated ginger (I use a microplane)
- 1 large garlic clove , minced
- 3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
- kosher salt and ground white pepper
- 1/2 cup fried wonton strips (broken into pieces, if large)
Assemble the Salad
- In a large bowl, toss together all of the salad ingredients, except for the almonds and orange segments. (These are delicate and will be added just before serving.) Set aside while you make the vinaigrette.
Make the Vinaigrette and Serve
- In a bowl, whisk together plum sauce, ginger, garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Add canola oil in a steady stream, whisking until combined and dressing is emulsified. Season to taste with salt and ground white pepper.
- Alternatively, you can add all of the ingredients to a mason jar, cover tightly, and shake until combined.
- Add enough of the vinaigrette to the salad to coat. Add sliced almonds and mandarin orange segments and gently toss to combine. Mound the salad onto a large serving plate and top with wonton strips. Drizzle with any remaining dressing table-side. Serve immediately.
- Replace the iceberg lettuce with shredded Napa cabbage.
- Swap the snow peas for 1/2 cup thinly-sliced red bell pepper or bean sprouts.
- For a spicy vinaigrette, whisk in Sriracha, to taste.
- Sprinkle the top of the salad with toasted sesame seeds before serving.
To Poach Chicken Breasts:
- Place 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts in a pot (in a single layer, if you can). Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt.
- Add about 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns and some aromatics, such as a garlic, a few sprigs of your favorite fresh herbs, and a dried bay leaf.
- Add water to cover the chicken by 1 inch. Bring to a low boil over medium heat, cover, and reduce heat to maintain a simmer.
- Cook until the chicken breasts register 165 degrees F at the thickest portion. This will take anywhere from 5-14 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken breasts.
- Store poached chicken breasts, covered or wrapped in plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days.