This Tender, Flavorful Korean Chicken Salad Helps Me Stay True to Myself

published Aug 30, 2022
Kitchn Love Letters
Dak Naengchae (Korean Cold Chicken Salad) Recipe

Say what you will about boiled chicken breast, this cold chicken salad with a toasty sweet mustard dressing is greater than the sum of its parts.

Serves4 as a main

Prep15 minutes

Cook20 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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Credit: Justine Lee

I first dipped my toes into food media only a few years ago but gosh, was it a space riddled with hard-and-fast absolutes. Green bell peppers are nasty! Salt is spicy. And if you thought cooking — nay, boiling — chicken breast would result in anything worth eating, you were advised to stay out of the kitchen.

While I was naive enough to blindly accept most of these “truths,” I couldn’t get past the hatred for a humble cut of protein. I had years of core food memories centered around delectable soups, salads, and sides prepared by family members and other Korean home cooks made with the notorious boiled chicken breast. And the dish that never failed to stun was dak naengchae.

Although this chicken salad may look simple, it’s packed with nifty culinary takeaways. Boiling the chicken in a pot chock-full of aromatics infuses the meat with flavor and makes sure that it’s extra tender. The dak, or chicken, gets another layer of flavor with a zippy sauce made with honey and Korean hot spicy yellow mustard.

And then there are the onions. There comes a time when a young Korean American cook learns the magic of onions shocked in ice water, often with a splash of vinegar. In her dak naengchae recipe, Gloria Lee of @gleetzbapsang uses the trick, crediting her knowledge of the technique to a Korean church lady she grew up with. I can’t remember exactly when or where I learned the onion trick. Was it explained to me over a Korean barbecue dinner? Perhaps it was something I had overheard from my grandma and mom as they were busy with food prep, while I did homework at the kitchen table. Regardless, this salad sealed the deal. You, too, will be amazed by the onion’s complexity — how crisp and sweet it is without the tear-jerking bite.

The chicken with dressing and the onions are non-negotiables in this recipe, but after that it’s a choose-your-own-adventure dish. I add slivers of the ripest mangoes to my dak naengchae, which my mom and dad loved and branded as “very Justine” the first time I served it at a family dinner. What can I say? I like to find sweet moments in cooking and naengchae is flexible enough that you can use whatever melange of colorful ingredients you’re craving or have on hand.

Beyond the fact dak naengchae is a beloved dish for me, it represents the cooks, stories, and meals that have and continue to inform who I am. That I get to write this love letter outside of the confines of a heritage month or under the guise of culinary exoticism feels like a step towards progress. There’s a bundle of lofty goals I want to accomplish as a person now in the trenches of American food media. But at the heart of everything is my desire to pay it forward — oh, and to be an advocate for the much-maligned boiled chicken breast.

Dak Naengchae (Korean Cold Chicken Salad) Recipe

Say what you will about boiled chicken breast, this cold chicken salad with a toasty sweet mustard dressing is greater than the sum of its parts.

Prep time 15 minutes

Cook time 20 minutes

Serves 4 as a main

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 1

    medium scallion

  • 4 cloves

    garlic, divided

  • 1 (1/2-inch) piece

    ginger (optional)

  • 2

    boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 pound total)

  • 10

    whole black peppercorns

  • 3 tablespoons

    honey

  • 3 tablespoons

    rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar, divided

  • 2 tablespoons

    toasted white sesame seeds, plus more for garnish (see Recipe Notes)

  • 1 tablespoon

    Korean hot spicy yellow mustard, such as Chung Jung On

  • 1 tablespoon

    toasted sesame oil

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1 clove

    garlic

  • 1

    medium red onion (about 6 ounces)

  • 1

    medium red bell pepper (about 8 ounces)

  • 1

    medium yellow bell pepper (about 8 ounces)

  • 1

    medium English cucumber (about 12 1/2 ounces)

  • 1

    medium ripe mango (about 12 ounces)

Instructions

  1. Prepare the following, adding each to a medium saucepan as it is completed: Trim 1 medium scallion and halve crosswise. Peel 3 of the garlic cloves and 1 (1/2-inch) piece ginger if using.

  2. Add 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 10 whole black peppercorns, and enough cool water to cover the chicken by an inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cover and simmer until the chicken is cooked through and registers at least 165°F in the thickest part, about 15 minutes.

  3. Turn off the heat. Pour the chicken and cooking liquid through a strainer set in the sink, then rinse the chicken under cold water to cool slightly and remove the aromatics. Return the chicken to the saucepan and add enough cold water to cover.

  4. Mince the remaining 1 garlic clove and place in a small bowl or jar. Add 3 tablespoons honey, 2 tablespoons toasted white sesame seeds, 2 tablespoons of the rice or apple cider vinegar, 1 tablespoon Korean hot spicy yellow mustard, 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil, and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Whisk or seal and shake the jar until well combined.

  5. Prepare an ice bath by filling and a medium bowl with ice cubes and water. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon vinegar. Halve and thinly slice 1 medium red onion. Add to the cold vinegar bath and stir to combine; let sit while you finish the salad.

  6. Prepare the following, adding each to the same large bowl as you complete it: Trim and thinly slice 1 medium red bell pepper and 1 medium yellow bell pepper. Peel, halve, and scrape the watery center from 1 medium English cucumber; cut into matchsticks. Peel, pit, and thinly slice 1 medium mango lengthwise, then halve the pieces crosswise.

  7. Drain the red onion and pat dry with paper towels, then add to the bowl of vegetables. Drain the chicken breasts, shred into bite-sized pieces, and add to the bowl of vegetables. Drizzle with the dressing and toss until well-coated. Garnish with more toasted white sesame seeds if desired.

Recipe Notes

Toasting sesame seeds: If you can only find untoasted white sesame seeds, toast them in a small skillet over medium heat, shaking the pan often, until light golden brown and fragrant, about 3 minutes.

Make ahead: The dressing can be made 2 days in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container.

Storage: Leftover salad can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.