Tiger Salad

Each Sunday I post a salad based on classic Chinese salad recipes, which I tweak and standardize so it's all-natural (no MSG!), easy to make and enjoyable for the traditional and noob palate alike. Each recipe can be enjoyed as a "Western-style" salad, by consulting my leafy greens pairing suggestions; or of course the Chinese way, as-is as a cold starter or side dish.

Ouch. I fell off the salad schedule, abandoning these weekly posts for a toe-curling two months. I've got those feelings of guilt and shame, that dread of standing before your refrigerator after a weeks-long holiday and bracing yourself for the cast of creepy fruit and veg that sit there waiting for your return with crooked smiles, slimy skin and bad breath, whispering, "You should've been more careful..."

Which also did happen, since I'd been working in Shanghai for almost two weeks and prior to that prepping for and filming another Jamie Pea's Dinner Parties episode for Tencent videos. Now that it's the first post of 2016, I'll come back with a firecracker of a salad to kick off the year and awaken my own senses. As part of my 2016 resolution to "Make Every Day Count", I'll be making an effort to kick lethargy, be more organized and have more clarity of purpose. So today, our Sunday Salad recipe is a Tiger Salad: fierce; bold; and firecrackery.

Here's what some Chinese folks had to say about Tiger Salad online:

"Tiger Salad has nothing to do with tigers. It neither contains tiger, nor does feed tigers. It's just called "Tiger Salad"... so there."

"Legend has it that it comes from the Northeast of China (*known for a cuisine as blunt and bold and as its people*). There lived a wife who was clueless about cooking and home-making skills, and had to cook for her grandmother-in-law one evening. Cluelesss wife proceeded to blithely hack away at a random mess of greens. When this "creative" new dish arrived at the table, grandma tastes it and, being the bold Northeasterner she is, blurts out: "Young lady, you've gotta be brave as a tiger to serve this. Henceforth this dish became known as "Tiger Salad", which today has many regional and personal variations including one in the particular style of my home province, Shandong."

"The name "Tiger Salad" may send you running, but it's a playful name... and more than that, it's a bold, spicy and refreshing dish that'll startle a languid palette with its fierce flavours. The two standout ingredients are the chili peppers and coriander, but if you find its bite intimidating you can swap out green chilis for green bell peppers and use only enough red chilis to make it purr like a gentle cat. It can be adjusted to cater to all tastes and is the perfect addition to a holiday feast."

As the first commenter noted, this recipe -- well, all Chinese recipes, if not all world cuisines -- have regional and personal variations. "My nan makes it better"; "...but I add a cheeky dash of Worcestershire"; and all the rest of it. But just as a bolognese will always, in principle, be a bolognese as long as its basic flavours and components are the mean of all other bolognese sauces, my Chinese salad recipes are the combined result of my casting a wide net for references and family recipes across the Chinese interwebs. What I test, taste and eventually write are a standardized recipe which evoke the essence of this "standard" well-known dish. What I hope is you'll have a solid reference point from which to taste, enjoy and continue the tradition of tweaking and making it yours.

If you don't have a mandoline with a julienne attachment (for finely sliced strips), get one now; since it makes effortless work of reducing big, firm vegetables to elegant, easy-to-eat strips, you'll be healthier for it both physically and mentally (there's a lot of slicing here that you don't want to do by hand).

Tiger Salad

Serves 4

  • 1 small carrot, finely julienned in ~5cm long strips
  • 2 cucumbers, finely julienned in ~5cm long strips
  • 1/2 leek, finely julienned by knife in ~5cm long strips
  • 16 sprigs of fresh coriander, cut to ~5cm long strips
  • 75g firm smoked tofu, finely julienned by knife in ~5cm long strips
  • 1 pointed green pepper
  • Slim slices of ginger totaling 10g, finely julienned by knife

Dressing

  • 2 fresh red bird's eye chillies, finely sliced (you may reduce the quantity)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp light soy sauce
  • 3 teaspoons of Chinkiang vinegar
  • 3 teaspoons of sesame oil
  • A pinch more salt, to taste

Extra stripes (optional add-ins):

  • 1 century egg, gently peeled, rinsed and sliced into 8 wedges (I love century eggs and share the enthusiasm with a precious few)
  • A small handful of raw red-skinned peanuts, stir-fried in a tablespoon of oil over medium heat for 2 minutes (be careful not to burn them) until roasted and crispy, drained on kitchen towel

Easy, tiger: Combine all your julienned vegetables, herbs and tofu in your serving bowl; you might like to separate them, neatly lined up on a long rectangular plate like rainbow stripes on a tiger's back. This can be wrapped and refrigerated for up to 6 hours before serving. Add the extra century egg or peanuts if you wish. Then mix the dressing ingredients together in a bowl. Dress the salad right before serving, toss it up with chopsticks (little known as the world's most perfect salad-eating utensils), and eat immediately and bravely.

Leafy greens pairings (make double the quantity of dressing): Frisée, ultra finely shredded round cabbage, shredded Savoy cabbage, baby spinach