This Vietnamese Chicken Salad Is One of My Favorite Easy Summer Suppers
When I was growing up on the Gulf Coast, I spent summer afternoons perched directly in front of an oscillating floor fan, craving nothing but a whiff of a breeze to break through the heat-fog, or maybe an icy glass of my mom’s limeade. We all hated to cook on those triple-digit days, when languishing was preferable to laboring. Usually, someone would pick up a bucket of perfect fried chicken from Publix, or slice a watermelon to eat over white rice. (Did anyone else grow up eating watermelon and rice on scorching days?)
But sometimes, my grandmother might clap her hands and announce that we’d be making gỏi gà for dinner. If I protested, longing for the fan and the cool tile under my bare legs, she said, “You don’t help, you don’t eat.” The best motivator, even now, to drive me into a kitchen.
Gỏi gà (translated to “chicken salad”) couldn’t be simpler: shredded cabbage and chicken, mixed up with julienned veggies, all tossed in a vinegary dressing cut with sugar and fish sauce. The dish requires very little cooking (and can actually be made with rotisserie chicken, if you truly feel like avoiding the stove), but provides a bite of fresh, tangy relief — especially when the sun is at its highest, most punishing point. The salad keeps well in the fridge, too, and makes for a wholesome-yet-light meal, perfect for serving at a summer party — or to a hungry, impatient family.
While my grandmother chopped the veggies with astonishing speed, using a knife she claimed could slice straight through a water snake in one cut, she put a plastic bowl of cooled, poached chicken in front of me. My job was to shred. There’s something very methodical about shredding chicken — especially in the quantities it took to feed my bustling, multigenerational family. I sat on the floor of the kitchen with the bowl in my lap, mindlessly creating long, white ribbons of chicken. I’d daydream and listen to the chirping of my parakeets, stopping every few minutes to throw a piece of meat into my mouth. Beside me, the sound of my grandmother’s knife hitting the cutting board.
And when we were done, no more than half an hour later, we called everyone to the table. My grandfather, who’d been harvesting chiles outdoors in giant, fiery palmfuls; my aunts and uncles, droopy-eyed from their naps; my mother, who had mixed up a jug of sweet-tart limeade while we were making the gỏi gà. At the center of the table there was a plate of pastel prawn chips, to add some texture and crispness to the meal.
Spooning volcano-heaps of gỏi gà onto our plates, we wondered aloud when the heat wave would subside. When this long summer would end. After the dishes were washed and put away, we scattered to our separate corners, reaching again for our fans, or books, or remote controls.
It’s been decades since we were all together in that way. Now I wish I’d looked a little less to the future during those summer days. If I could do it again, I’d stay at the table a little longer. Taste a little more slowly. Although it is not a time-consuming dish, gỏi gà reminds me that there is, and never has been, any rush at all.
Gỏi Gà (Vietnamese Shredded Chicken and Cabbage Salad) Recipe
Prep time 40 minutes
Cook time 20 minutes
Serves4 to 6
For the salad:
- 1 pound
boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2 medium)
- 1 teaspoon
medium red onion
- 2 tablespoons
medium green cabbage (about 1 1/2 pounds)
large carrot (about 6 ounces), or 1 1/2 cups pre-shredded carrots (4 ounces)
- 1/2 bunch
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup
Prawn chips, for serving (optional)
For the dressing:
- 1 clove
- 1 to 2
- 1/3 cup
- 2 tablespoons
- 2 tablespoons
Place 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts in a single layer in a medium saucepan. Add enough water to barely cover the chicken and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until just cooked through, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, pickle the red onion and prepare the remaining ingredients.
Thinly slice 1/2 medium red onion and place in a small bowl. Add 2 tablespoons rice vinegar and toss to combine. Let sit for 15 minutes.
Prepare the following, adding each to the same large bowl (use the biggest one you have!) as you complete it: Remove the outer leaves from 1/2 medium green cabbage. Trim the core, then thinly slice the cabbage about the same width as the onion (about 8 cups). Peel 1 large carrot, then cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces. Cut the pieces lengthwise into 1/8-inch thick planks. Stacking a few planks at a time, very thinly slice lengthwise into matchsticks. (If using pre-shredded carrots, add 1 1/2 cups directly to the bowl.) Coarsely chop the leaves and tender stems from 1/2 bunch fresh cilantro sprigs until you have 1/4 cup.
When the chicken is ready, transfer to a clean cutting board and let cool. When the onions are ready, drain off the vinegar. Meanwhile, make the dressing.
Mince 1 garlic clove and place in a small bowl. Juice 1 to 2 medium limes into the bowl until you have about 2 1/2 tablespoons. Add 1/3 cup rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, and 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, and whisk to combine.
Shred the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Add the chicken and onions to the vegetables and toss with your hands to combine. Drizzle with the dressing and toss to combine. Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes for the flavors to meld. Taste and season with more lime juice as needed. Sprinkle each serving with 1 to 2 tablespoons fried shallots and serve with prawn chips if desired.
Spicy salad: Add a few slices of thinly sliced fresh chile to the dressing if you want a bit of spicy heat.
Herbs: An equal amount of fresh Thai basil or mint leaves (or combination) can be substituted for the cilantro.
Make ahead: The salad can be made up to 1 day in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container.
Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. The flavors will intensify after each day.