Every time I think about Chinese Chicken Salad, I’m brought back to the weeks following my son Nicolai’s birth in July 1994, Santa Clara, CA. If I told you that each tangy, salty mouthful was accompanied by a pang of grief, you might wonder who in their right mind would continue making this dish. Yet this salad wasn’t the source of grief, it was the sustenance that got me through a hard time. As I mix the dressing of sesame oil, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and sugar, my eyes fill with tears. I think of the women who supported my family during those post-partum days, especially, Julie Gutierrez-Muegge. She wrote the recipe down for me on a Garfield Post-it, while I sat at her kitchen table. She then shared with me what her Mexican grandmother said about childbirth. “Every woman visits the valley of death when giving birth, and some are lucky enough to return to tell about it.” Julie reminded me that I was one of the lucky ones. Chinese Chicken Salad helped me to believe that.
Fifteen years later, my son, Nicolai, just home from soccer, puts in his order for Chinese Chicken Salad.
“Mom, tomorrow will you make Chinese Chicken Salad? I’ve been telling the guys about it and they’re coming over tomorrow night just to eat it. I dream about that salad!”
I agree. He can’t possibly know what this request means for me. Yes, it is wonderful that he’s not asking for pizza or pasta for the thousandth time. But what I am referring to is the nostalgic significance this recipe has for me– and indirectly him.
On January 1, 1994 my husband Carl, my 18 month old son, Kyle, and I (barely showing my early pregnancy), boarded an airplane in Indianapolis, IN and flew west to Santa Clara. We were starting a new life on the West Coast, near high tech Silicon Valley and warm weather. My job for the next 6 months was to entertain an active toddler while incubating a baby. I loved the prospects of exploring a new place and immediately joined Las Madres, a unique mother and child support group. Every week, I would race to the back page of the paper to check the playground location and times and plan everything else around the Las Madres gathering. Before I knew it, Kyle and I had instant community. What a way to become familiar with the area! We met in a different park every week, so I now knew of a wide range of play options as well as learning which pediatricians were taking new patients, what days the farmers’ markets came to town, and the real pay dirt of the group: names and numbers of good babysitters.
What I didn’t anticipate was the support this group would become after the birth of my son. Nico was born without his right leg and hip. A huge surprise since the ultra sound didn’t pick up the abnormality. The weeks after his birth were filled with the aftermath of shock, medical visits and the demands of my other son. Every night another meal would arrive from a Las Madres family. The generosity was touching and after two months we were astounded as the meals just kept coming. Lasagna and casseroles were tough to eat since none of us were very hungry, and the July heat was oppressive in our third floor condo. So, each time a Chinese Chicken Salad arrived, I ate it. It was the only dish that really appealed to me. Having a cool salad that felt so nourishing and spring- like, brought me hope. I don’t know if the dish was in vogue or if it was a regional dish, but we just couldn’t seem to get enough of it and every week several arrived. Cilantro, toasted almonds, sesame seed oil, crunchy romaine, roasted chicken with the skin on, the recipe ingredients varied little and were a symphony of flavors.
Nico requests this salad regularly. What I don’t understand is how this dish had such an impact on him. He was a nursing newborn with no experience eating Chinese Chicken Salad and yet he asks for the food that nourished me back from sadness and landed me in my kitchen today, wondering about the mysterious effects some foods have on our psyches and our lives.
(Nicolai Calabria was born at Los Gatos Hospital on July 8, 1994. He now lives in Massachusetts and wrestles and plays soccer for his high school team. In 2008 he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with his father and raised over $100,000 for the California based Free Wheel Chair Mission.)
Chinese Chicken Salad
1 teaspoon. salt
½ teaspoon pepper
4 tablespoons Japanese rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup canola oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
Whisk together until sugar is dissolved.
1 head of Romaine lettuce, torn in bite-sized pieces
½ bunch chopped fresh cilantro
4 green onions, thinly sliced at an angle using ½ of green stalk too
½ cup toasted, sliced almonds
1 whole rotisserie-roasted chicken, sliced in small pieces
15 won ton wrappers, sliced in strips and fried or
1 can prepared Chow Mein Noodles
Layer in the order of the above ingredients list. Pour dressing over the top, toss and serve.