This salad is worthy of a restaurant menu, but so easy to make at home. It’s refreshing, healthy, and filling in all the right ways. Packed with crisp-crunchy veggies, toasted nuts, tender chicken, sweet oranges, and a delicious sesame-ginger sauce, this Chinese Chicken Salad is perfect for make-ahead meals or any gathering.
This post was originally published on May 28, 2019; Updated on April 15, 2021.
Everyone’s favorite chicken salad
We put this salad right up there with the salad classics that are always a hit (like Broccoli Salad and BBQ Ranch Chopped Salad). This one checks off all the right flavor marks: salty, savory, and sweet. It also provides that refreshing crunch from crisp vegetables and toasted almonds. Once you toss in some tender oranges and a ginger-sesame dressing, and you’ve got a recipe for success.
Does Chinese Chicken Salad originate from China?
No, this popular salad, which has also been called Asian Chicken Salad, or Mandarin Orange Chicken Salad, or Chinese Chicken Salad with Mandarin Oranges, was not invented in China, thus calling it any of those names is actually a misnomer. The reason we call ours Chinese-Inspired Chicken Salad is that several of the flavors in this dish are those that you’d typically find in some Chinese cuisines, such as rice vinegar, sesame, and soy (though we call for similar-tasting coconut aminos instead of soy sauce).
This particular style of salad, with a base of cabbage and chopped vegetables and studded with nuts and tossed with a sesame-flavored dressing, is an Asian-American fusion dish that first appeared in some versions in American cookbooks and magazines as early as the 1930s. It subsequently gained popularity on restaurant menus in 1990s and 2000s.
Many, but not all, versions of this salad call for mandarin oranges, which is considered a native tree of south-eastern Asia and the Philippines. Mandarin oranges are now grown in all sub-tropical regions of the world, but mostly in Japan, southern China, India, and the East Indies.
Ingredients to Make This Chinese Chicken Salad Recipe
- Napa and red cabbage – feel free to use a 12-ounce bag of shredded cabbage mix in place of the Napa and red cabbage and add in another 1/2 cup of shredded carrots or snap peas
- Shredded carrots – shred yourself or buy already shredded carrots
- Sugar snap peas
- Fresh cilantro
- Green onions
- Fresh or canned mandarin oranges – can use any type of fresh orange (divided into segments) or a can of mandarin oranges. For a Whole30-friendly salad, use fresh oranges or choose oranges canned in water or juice, not syrup or light syrup.
- Sliced or slivered almonds – can substitute cashews or peanuts
- Cooked, shredded chicken – or use shredded turkey or pork, or omit for a vegan salad
- Unseasoned rice vinegar – we call for unseasoned rice vinegar because it is made from just rice and water. Seasoned rice vinegar often has added salt and/or sugar
- Toasted sesame oil – this is literally the ‘secret sauce’ when it comes to making a deliciously savory dressing
- Coconut aminos – or you can use 1 ½ tablespoon of low-sodium soy sauce, shoyu, or tamari (gluten-free) mixed with 1 ½ tablespoon of water; for gluten-free, sodium sensitivity, or Whole30, we do recommend using coconut aminos, however, since it is lower in sodium and made from just two ingredients
- Avocado oil or extra-virgin olive oil – Primal Kitchen is our go-to for avocado oil and organic extra virgin olive oil (save 10% with code REALFOODRDS)
- Ground ginger
- Garlic powder
- Sesame Seeds (optional, for garnish)
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How to Make Chinese-Inspired Chicken Salad
If you don’t have some already cooked and shredded chicken on hand, start there. We have several easy ways you can make perfectly shredded and moist chicken:
- buy a rotisserie chicken and shred it into pieces
- use our method for the perfect chicken breast
- use chicken leftover from making Instant Pot Whole Chicken
- make our Easy Instant Pot Shredded Chicken
After the chicken is prepared, the bulk of your time will be spent chopping veggies, so put on a favorite podcast or music channel and start shredding. You can save time, of course, by purchasing already shredded cabbage and carrots. Next up, stir the salad dressing ingredients together and then toast the almonds. At this point, all that’s left to do is toss everything together and enjoy!
Is Chinese Chicken Salad Healthy?
It sure is! Not only does this salad contain foods from a variety of food groups (that’s typically a green light for ‘high nutrition’), but we’ve formulated the dressing to help reign in sodium and cut out any added refined sugar. Dig in with gusto – this is one especially delicious way to eat up a ton of colorful, nutrient-dense, and good-for-you foods.
Perfect occasions to serve Chinese Chicken Salad
This salad is one of our most recommended options when people ask for a healthy recipe to have meals at home and to take to a special gathering. Here are all the times we think this Mandarin Orange Chicken Salad Recipe would be a perfect addition to the table:
- Potlucks and picnics – it’s especially easy to transport and serve chilled
- When you want veggies to disappear – it’s a salad that people LOVE to eat
- Bridal showers and baby showers – it’s a fresh and colorful crowd-pleaser
- Make-ahead meals all week long – pre-cut the veggies, make the sauce, cook the chicken, then quickly assemble when it’s time to serve
- Working lunches – a perfectly healthy option for quick and/or on-the-go meals
- Any day ending in y – honestly, you’re going to love it
How to make Mandarin Orange Chicken Salad ahead of time
We like to have a “make-ahead mentality” when developing recipes for you, and this Chinese Chicken Salad Recipe definitely fits the bill.
Here are the various components of this recipe that can all be prepped up to three days ahead and stored in separate containers until you’re ready to toss it all together.
- Cook and shred the chicken
- Slice the cabbage, green onions, and sugar snap peas
- Shred or julienne the carrots (this julienne slicer makes quick work of this task!)
- De-stem the cilantro leaves (i.e. remove the leaves from the stems)
- Toast the almonds
- Make the dressing
- Cut or “supreme” the oranges if you’re not using canned mandarin oranges
For the Salad:
- 3 cups thinly sliced Napa or green cabbage*
- 1 cup thinly sliced red cabbage*
- 1 cup shredded carrots
- 1 cup sugar snap peas, thinly sliced
- 3 green onions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
- 3 cups cooked, shredded chicken
- 1 cup orange segments (use a 12- to 15-ounce can of mandarin oranges in 100% juice, drained well, or supreme an orange, or cut fresh orange segments into chunks)
- 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, stems removed, leaves roughly chopped
- ⅓ cup slivered or sliced almonds, toasted
- Optional: Black and/or white sesame seeds for garnish
For the Dressing:
- In a large bowl, combine cabbage, carrots, sugar snap peas, green onions, and cooked chicken. Toss well to combine.
- In a small bowl or jar combine all of the dressing ingredients. Whisk or shake well to combine. Pour over salad just before serving.
- Gently stir in oranges, cilantro, and toasted almonds. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired.
*May substitute one 12-ounce bag of coleslaw mix for the green and red cabbage and add an additional ½ cup of shredded carrots or snow peas to create the same volume.
**May substitute 1 ½ tablespoon of low-sodium soy sauce, shoyu, or tamari (gluten-free) mixed with 1 ½ tablespoons water for the coconut aminos
- Serving Size: 1 cup (1/8th of recipe)
- Calories: 188
- Sugar: 5 g
- Sodium: 329 mg
- Fat: 12 g
- Saturated Fat: 2 g
- Carbohydrates: 9 g
- Fiber: 2 g
- Protein: 12 g
- Cholesterol: 30 mg
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Photo Credit: The photos in this blog post were taken by Jess of Plays Well with Butter.
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About Jessica Beacom
Jessica is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist living in Boulder, CO with her hubby and two daughters. She’s been described as a ‘real food evangelist’ and loves sharing her knowledge with others to help them break free of the diet mentality and find their own food freedom. In her spare time she enjoys CrossFit, telemark skiing, mountain biking, teaching herself how to play the banjo and camping out under the stars.