Stop Calling It Asian Salad

Excuse me, waiter, but there’s a race in my greens

salad with chicken, oranges, carrots, almonds Photo: Getty Images

I’m generally not the kind of person who puts much thought into something like a salad, and it took a long time for me to even notice Asian salad—all of my life, actually. Then a few years ago it tagged along with me to a friend’s potluck. It was my husband who, at the last minute, bought the salad from a nearby grocery store as the dish that we would contribute as a couple. “I just picked up some Asian salad,” he said. Having not seen said salad, I asked him what made it Asian. “Not mayonnaise,” he said with a shrug. 

What came out of the box was a cabbage and lettuce salad with flecks of carrot, scallions, and almond slivers, underseasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil. Over the course of the party, at least three others asked the same question: What makes an Asian salad Asian? We joked about it, but the truth is, this salad hit a nerve. It felt weird being cowed by cold, soggy vegetables, but the longer I sat with it, the more pissed I became. There was something going on here. So I reached out to culinary historians, chefs, food writers, and artists to help me unpack what might be wrong with the Asian salad.

What Is Asian Salad and Where Did It Come From?

Asian salad is usually an American-style green salad (sometimes it’s a cabbage slaw) topped with fried wontons or chow mein noodles, sometimes canned mandarin oranges and chicken, too. The dressing is often a vinaigrette with some combination of sesame oil, soy sauce, and ginger or plum sauce.

Asian American dishes such as these are often inventions of Asian immigrant entrepreneurs, as an attempt to figure out what Americans like to eat, adapt, and build a bridge, says Krishnendu Ray, PhD, an associate professor of food studies at New York University and author of “The Ethnic Restaurateur” (at Amazon). And at the end of the 20th century, Americans wanted salads.

“Recipes for generalized Chinese or Asian salads were popular up until the 1930s, a few decades after the very Americanized chop suey craze,” says KC Hysmith, social media manager at the Museum of Food and Drink and a PhD candidate in food history at the University of North Carolina. “Then with the change in immigration laws in the 1960s, another wave of Asian ingredients took over American foodways.” 

More on Asian Food and Cooking

In the 1960s, the Chinese chicken salad caught on, likely because of Madame Wu’s Garden in Santa Monica, a trendy Chinese restaurant that added the salad to the menu per Cary Grant’s request. Over the decades, the salad—or renditions of it—popped up at various restaurants, but the salad exploded in popularity when Wolfgang Puck created a version for his fusion restaurant Chinois on Main in the ’80s. 

Still, Chinese chicken salad had nothing on “Asian salad,” a term that appeared in mainstream media in the ‘80s. Mentions of it increased by about 400 percent within two decades. The Asian salad is now on the menu of countless fast-casual and fast-food restaurants, in the salad sections of grocery stores, and featured on food blogs galore. And it’s no longer enterprising Asian Americans at the helm.

When and why did the Chinese in the name get swapped out for Asian? When it comes to hybridized American food, the pattern has always been for cookbook authors, restaurant owners, and recipe writers to keep upping the stakes, says Ken Albala, PhD, a food historian and professor at the University of the Pacific in California. “I think that the needle kept having to move into new territories every time a new cuisine was so-called discovered by the West and those ingredients would get incorporated.” For example, when people started adding miso, yuzu, lemongrass, or (ugh) peanut butter to the salads, they were no longer tied to specifically Chinese flavors. And today, even the classic Chinese chicken salad is called Asian salad.

The Problem With Asian Salad

To be clear, this isn’t about the other capital A word: Authenticity. The Asian salad has never claimed to be a dish from any place in Asia. Dishes can be inspired and fused together, nothing is truly ever authentic, and I grew up eating and enjoying diasporic cooking. It’s the Asian descriptor that irks me. 

“These elements from Asian cuisine are sort of pulled out of context and put into this pedestrian salad,” says Miranda Brown, PhD, professor of Chinese studies at the University of Michigan. “But the main problem here is they’re taking a racial label and adding it to the food, which just doesn’t mix well with where we are as a country right now.” 

“Asian salad is my biggest pet peeve in American food media, food blogs, and restaurant menus,” says Pailin Chongchitnant, chef and creator of Hot Thai Kitchen and author of “Demystifying Thai Cuisine with Authentic Recipes to Make at Home” (at Amazon and Walmart). “To me, it represents how Asian people have been treated in North America—as a monolith, as walking stereotypes, and without respect.”

While growing up in California, Jenn de la Vega, a caterer and author of “Showdown Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ: Bold Flavors from Wild Cooking Contests” (at Amazon and Walmart), always found it strange to see bags of Asian salad mix at the grocery stores. “I remember seeing fried wontons and chow mein noodles appearing with teriyaki style dressings,” she says. “A real confusion of cultures; none of them Filipino.”

What the 'Asian' in Asian Salad Means

“I don’t think that the Asian in ‘Asian salad’ is intended to be pejorative, but rather, Asian food is kind of fetishized in a lot of ways,” says Brown. And in this case, what people mean when they say Asian in America is really that it’s Chinese. “Part of the American understanding of Asian food, what it should look like and taste like, is very much conditioned by the Chinese-American diner and takeout. Dealing with this specter makes it hard for other Asian cuisines to get a foothold into the United States.” 

South Asians, for instance, still need to constantly remind people in America that they’re Asians, too, whereas in the U.K. the presumption is that Asian means Indian. 

“When you’re calling something Asian, what are you really saying?” asks Preeti Mistry, chef and co-author of “Juhu Beach Club Cookbook” (at Amazon). “Calling something Asian doesn’t describe anything and it requires a lot of assumptions because most people would be surprised if they ordered an Asian salad and got something that was full of Indian spices or Filipino flavors, even though those cultures are in Asia. It’s collapsing so many diverse cultures into one word.”

These Minor Feelings: It’s a Generational Thing

In the book, “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning” (at Amazon), the author Cathy Park Hong gets at the existential core of what being constantly gaslit by the mainstream public can do to a person. The experiences aren’t new. But speaking up about them kind of is. The number of Asian Americans born and raised in the U.S. is larger than ever but many of us grew up constantly pounded by microaggressions that we were supposed to just quietly take. But we’re all grown up now, and some of us are kind of pissed.

“Immigrant generations are generally not all that incensed with questions of misappropriation but their children tend to be quite sensitive about it,” says Ray. “Partly because they grew up here and many of them were bullied and ostracized about their weird lunches at school and now all that weird stuff has become very trendy and sexy.”

It’s true. When I asked my parents, who opened Thai restaurants in the ‘80s and ‘90s, what they thought, they told me they never thought about it; that they were too busy working and appeasing white customers to make money to send me and my sisters to college so we could disappoint them with our liberal arts degrees and earn the privilege to think such thoughts and make our own money writing about them.

Fair enough, Mom and Dad, thank you, and I love you, but also, like, a little “OK Boomer,” amirite? The demographics of this country have changed. Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. and the most diverse group of adults this country’s seen. (Gen Z will be even more so.) Before we know it, half of this country will be majority not-white and Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group among them. So, if restaurant groups and grocery chains are marketing and naming things for the benefit of the consumer, they’re excluding a huge chunk of people. And I’m not the only one with Asian salad under my skin.

In 2017, Bonnie Tsui wrote an op-ed in The New York Times asking the same question: “Why Is Asian Salad Still on the Menu?” the comment section of which is like gaslighting on steroids. But we’re not going to stop talking about this.

“Asian salad as a concept highlights the potentially harmful ways people can digest cultures different from their own,” says Divya Gadangi, a Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist. “They’re experiencing something flattened and distorted expressly for their consumption, and a lot of the time it’s for some white dude’s gain.”

“The Asian salad aimed to appease the white gaze,” says Gadangi. “And is now being wielded by mostly non-Asians, if not exclusively non-Asians, to what? Celebrate Asian flavors? Bring underrepresented foods to the forefront? Hardly, because who is celebrating the culture? Who is at the forefront? Who gets to decide what the ingredients are? It was never meant to be representative.” 

Brown says that so much of Asian American identity revolves around food and grappling with feelings around how it gets appropriated, disrespected, and misrepresented can get tricky.

Growing up in Staten Island, Gadangi says, she’d wish to see more of herself in the prominently white culture. “The shallowness and commodity-ness of what we get says to us, ‘Well, we still don’t actually like you, let’s get that straight. But we’ll eat your food.’”

Food for Thought: Renaming the Asian Salad

If you haven’t caught on by now, this article isn’t really about salad, it’s about words and how they matter. 

“In the grand scheme of things, what we call an Asian salad doesn’t rise to the level of serious concern like anti-Asian hate crime in the era of Covid, but it’s a mainstream insensitivity that we could do away with,” says Brown. 

“When I first saw packages of Asian salad mix, I thought of returning them to the manufacturer with red ink like a teacher,” says de la Vega. “Nice try, guys. Redo this."

And no, Asian-inspired isn’t any better. That’s just lazy. We can do better. 

Like maybe just using straightforward language:

“If I could change the culture, I would prefer to name it by the ingredients,” says Linda Shiue, MD, a chef and author of “Spicebox Kitchen: Eat Well and Be Healthy with Globally Inspired, Vegetable-Forward Recipes” (at Amazon). “Let’s say, a napa cabbage salad with mandarin oranges and a sesame-soy dressing. It tells you what you’re getting and it actually sounds more appetizing. Your palate starts to get excited about those flavors.” 

Or come up with your own name without leaning on tired tropes like “Emperor’s salad” or “Enlightened salad.”

“When we first opened Tao Yuan in Maine 10 years ago, I put Asian slaw on my menu,” says Cara Stadler, chef and co-owner of Bao Bao Dumpling House, Tao Yuan, and Zao Ze Cafe and Market in Portland, Maine. “I thought it would appeal to the community. There are too many cultures smashed together in our slaw for me to say it’s Chinese but calling it Asian was so nonspecific and didn’t really add any value. Eventually we had to ask ourselves, ’Why do we still have this on our menu?’” Stadler says she and her mom, who’s also her business partner, changed it to the Eighty Ate Slaw, based on the name of their restaurant group. There was no uproar, no confusion about what the slaw was, she says, and the dish remained widely popular.

But you don’t need to be a restaurant owner or recipe writer or food executive to push for these changes. The claim is that this is what consumers want. Kindly tell them that you’re smarter than that.

In the Eater article, “Why Do Fast-Casual Restaurants Get a Pass on Appropriation?” the author Jenny Dorsey, chef and founder of nonprofit think tank Studio ATAO, implores readers to “scrutinize these brands, whose reach permeates our lives on the daily, whose executives (inaccurately) treat America as though they are as white as they are, whose menus and messaging influence the next wave of restaurateurs and food entrepreneurs.”

7 Asian Salads That Aren’t 'Asian Salad'

Lao Yum Salad with Egg Dressing

By Christina Tia

salad with tomato and cucumber on plate

Photo: Christina Tia Photo: Christina Tia

“My favorite Lao salads are super funky, like papaya salad, but not all Lao style salads are,” says Christina Tia, chef, host, and creator of House of X Tia. The YouTube star remembers the yum salat fondly as a mainstay party food in her family. “The egg dressing is what makes it special,” she says. “There’s an umami pop from the fish sauce but it’s not super funky and the egg yolks make it really creamy.”

Serves 4 to 6 

For the Dressing
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thin
4 hard-boiled eggs
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon water
1 ½ teaspoons fish sauce
½ teaspoon salt

For the Salad
1 head iceberg lettuce, cut into large pieces
1 cucumber, sliced into half-moons 
4 scallions (green parts only), cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
½ cup cherry tomatoes
A handful of cilantro, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons sunflower seeds or crushed peanuts

Directions

  1. Heat olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer garlic from the pan to a paper towel-lined plate and reserve 1 tablespoon of the oil.
  2. Peel the hard-boiled eggs, slice them in half lengthwise, and separate the yolks into a small bowl. Break them up with a fork. Slice the egg whites lengthwise into ¼-inch strips and set aside.
  3. Add mayonnaise, sugar, lime juice, water, fish sauce, and salt to the egg yolks and stir to combine. Taste and adjust with more fish sauce or lime juice to your liking then stir in the fried garlic and reserved oil.
  4. In a large bowl, combine the lettuce, cucumber, scallions, and half of the dressing; toss well to coat. Gently fold in the tomatoes, cilantro, egg whites, sunflower seeds or peanuts, and the rest of the dressing.

Sangchu Geotjeori

By Jenny Lee

salad with red chili dressing

Photo: Jenny Lee Photo: Jenny Lee

“Asian is a catchall term that’s supposed to represent a plethora of different cultures but the salad’s ingredients have nothing to do with my Korean culture,” says Jenny Lee, a cooking instructor in the greater Milwaukee area and owner of Perilla Kitchen.

This vibrant Korean lettuce salad features a dressing made with soy sauce, rice vinegar, and gochugaru. “Sangchu” means lettuce in Korean and “geotjeori” refers to fresh kimchi, not the fermented kind. Gochugaru is Korean red pepper flakes, which aren’t fiery spicy, but you’ll feel some heat on the back of your tongue.

Serves 6 to 8

¼ cup gochugaru, or to taste
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup honey
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons sesame seeds, plus 1 tablespoon more for garnish
4 scallions, sliced on the bias
1 head of green or red lettuce, about 1 pound, torn or cut into 2-inch pieces

Directions

  1. In a bowl, combine gochugaru, soy sauce, honey, sesame oil, rice vinegar, garlic, and 2 teaspoons of the sesame seeds; whisk to combine. Stir in the scallions.
  2. Place the lettuce in a large serving bowl and toss it with the dressing. If your head of lettuce is on the small side, you might not need all the dressing. Garnish with the remaining 1 tablespoon of sesame seeds.

Eighty Ate Slaw

By Cara Stadler

salad with carrot and peanuts on dish

Photo: Cara Stadler Photo: Cara Stadler

“Every salad I’ve had in Asia does not taste like any Asian salad I’ve had in the United States,” says Stadler. “This shredded cabbage, carrot, and snow pea salad is inspired by a salad that I had in Northern China that I loved.”

Serves 6

For the Dressing
¾ cup shallot oil, reserved from frying shallots for the salad (if you’re using store-bought fried shallots, you can use ginger-infused oil or plain canola oil for the dressing)
¼ cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons sugar
Salt to taste

For the Salad
1 small head of red or green cabbage (about the size of a softball), sliced very thin 
1 medium carrot, shredded
20 snow peas, trimmed and thinly sliced lengthwise
Cilantro, ½ cup chiffonade, plus more whole leaf for garnish
½ cup scallions, thinly sliced
Salt, to taste
½ cup roasted peanuts, chopped
½ cup fried shallots (homemade or store-bought)
Pea shoots for garnish (optional) 

Directions

  1. In a small bowl, combine all dressing ingredients and whisk well. Taste and adjust with more salt to your liking.
  2. In a large serving bowl, combine the cabbage, carrot, snow peas, cilantro chiffonade, and scallions. Add the dressing and toss to coat, season with salt to taste. Top with peanuts, fried shallots, cilantro leaves, and pea shoots.

Kachumber

By Preeti Mistry

cucumber tomato salad in bowl with vegetables around it

Photo: Perry Santanachote/Consumer Reports Photo: Perry Santanachote/Consumer Reports

"This is a simple and refreshing chopped salad we would often have alongside dinner growing up," says Mistry. "Dinner usually consisted of rice, roti, dal, shaak (vegetables sauteed with spices), papad, and raita. Kachumber is basically diced cucumbers, radishes, and tomatoes dressed in lemon juice, salt, and ground cumin. "Never oil or leafy vegetables."

Serves 4 to 6

1 medium English cucumber, diced
1 bunch of radishes, trimmed and halved (or quartered if large)
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved (or quartered if large)
½ small red onion, finely diced
½ cup cilantro leaves
1 lemon, juiced
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin

Directions

  1. In a large serving bowl, combine the cucumber, radishes, cherry tomatoes, and red onion. Toss with lemon juice, salt, and cumin. Garnish with cilantro leaves. 

Atchara

By Jenn de la Vega

person mixing salad in metal bowl

Photo: Simon Keough Photo: Simon Keough

“In the Philippines, salad is never served as a meal but as a side to balance out and cut the richness of grilled meats and fish,” says de la Vega. “Ensaladang is typically diced unripe mango, tomato, onion, and brined shrimp paste. Another is called ararusip or lato salad, which are sea grapes tossed with raw tomato and onion to accompany grilled pork liempo or crispy pata (deep fried pork knuckle).” 

This pickle recipe, called atchara, resembles and shares an origin with green papaya salad but it is treated as a condiment, only served in small haystacks rather than a large bowl.

Makes 1 quart

1 green papaya (about 2 pounds), peeled and seeds removed
1 tablespoon salt
1 small carrot, trimmed and peeled
¼ red bell pepper, trimmed and deseeded
1 mild green chile pepper, such as serrano
2-inch knob of ginger, peeled
6 small shallots, trimmed and peeled
2 cups apple cider vinegar
¾ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns

Directions

  1. Finely shred the papaya with a mandoline, julienne slicer, or box grater. Place it in a nonreactive bowl with the salt and toss to combine every 10 minutes for 30 minutes.
  2. Drain the papaya in a colander lined with cheesecloth, muslin, or even a clean T-shirt. Squeeze out as much water as you can and place the papaya in a large bowl.
  3. To make decorative carrot flowers, cut out 4 thin wedges along the length of the carrot. Then slice thinly into coins. Shred the remaining carrot.
  4. Julienne the red bell pepper, green chile pepper, and ginger.
  5. Cut the shallots into ½-inch chunks, keeping the rings intact.
  6. Bring the vinegar, sugar, and peppercorns to a boil in a small pot. Whisk to completely dissolve the sugar. Using a metal strainer, blanch the carrot, bell pepper, chile, and ginger for 30 seconds. Drain and add to the papaya bowl.
  7. Blanch the shallots for 1 minute and add to the papaya. Toss the vegetables with the papaya to mix thoroughly. Add the vinegar mixture once cooled. 
  8. Sterilize two 16-ounce mason jars and lids by steaming them on all sides for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
  9. Add a 1-inch-tall layer of pickled vegetables to the jars. Use a fork to place the carrot flowers along the edges so they are displayed as you pack in more. Continue to fill and decorate the jars until they are full. Wipe the mouth of the jar with a clean towel and seal. Atchara keeps for up to 6 months in the fridge.

Backpacker’s Gado Gado (Excerpted from Spicebox Kitchen)

By Linda Shiue

hard boiled egg, tomato, tofu salad on banana leaf

Photo: Michelle K. Min Photo: Michelle K. Min

"I first tried gado gado as an adventurous 19-year-old backpacking solo in Indonesia," says Shiue. "There were so many new sights, sounds, flavors, and colorful characters offering unsolicited life advice, marriage proposals, and more. This salad is as vibrant as those memories, and as flexible as traveling off the beaten track."

The name of this Indonesian salad translates to “mix-mix.” Feel free to use whatever vegetables you have and like, some raw and some blanched, plus a protein, such as sliced hard-boiled egg, pan-fried tofu, or tempeh. Garnish it with krupuk, which are shrimp crackers, or small rice crackers. 

For the Dressing (Makes 2 Cups)
¾ cup light coconut milk
⅔ cup natural crunchy peanut butter, at room temperature
¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce|2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

For the Salad
Mix and match your choice of the following, aiming for about 2 cups total per serving and a variety of cooking techniques, colors, and textures:

Steamed green beans or purple cabbage
Pan-fried tofu or tempeh slices|
Boiled eggs
Raw spinach, carrots, tomatoes or cucumbers
Garnish with fried shallots or krupuk

Directions

  1. Whisk all dressing ingredients together in a small bowl until smooth. Add water, if needed, to thin it to a pourable consistency.
  2. Place all salad ingredients on a platter with the dressing on the side. Use the dressing as a dipping sauce or drizzle it over your gado gado platter.

Laab Kai Jiew

By Pailin Chongchitnant

Salad with cucumber and chili on plate

Photo: Pailin Chongchitnant Photo: Pailin Chongchitnant

"Thai salads could not be any different from the Western idea of a salad," says Chongchitnant. "They are not bowls of leafy greens with toppings and a thousand options for dressings. Instead, protein is usually the main ingredient, with the exception of our "pounded salads," such as the famous green papaya salad. But the unique part about Thai salads is the dressing, which doesn’t vary nearly as much as Western salad dressings. Most Thai salad dressings are made of the basic four ingredients: fish sauce, lime juice, chilies, and sugar. No oil. Ratios and details can change, but the spirit of a Thai salad is always the same: tart, light, and spicy."

Serves 2

For the Toasted Rice Powder
2 tablespoons uncooked sticky or jasmine rice
2 makrut lime leaves (optional)

For the Roasted Chili Flakes
1 small handful of Thai dried chilies (or any other kinds of spicy dried chilies)
2 makrut lime leaves (optional)

For the Salad
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
Vegetable oil
¾ cup sliced cucumber
½ cup mint leaves
1 small shallot, trimmed, peeled, and thinly sliced
6 sprigs of cilantro, roughly chopped
1 scallion, trimmed and sliced thin
2 inches lemongrass (only the tender lower part), trimmed, peeled, and thinly sliced
1½ tablespoons lime juice
2 teaspoons fish sauce

Directions

  1. For the toasted rice powder, combine rice and lime leaves in a dry sauté pan over medium-high heat. Stir constantly until the rice is a deep golden brown and the lime leaves are crisp. Transfer to a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder and grind into a powder and set aside.
  2. For the roasted chili flakes, preheat the oven to 300° F and bake the chilies and lime leaves for 5 to 7 minutes until crisp and dark with a smoky aroma. Cool completely and blitz in a spice grinder until fine, or if you want coarser flakes, pound in a mortar and pestle. Be careful not to inhale chili dust as you grind—let the chilies settle in the grinder before opening. You can keep chili flakes in an airtight container at room temperature for a few weeks. For long-term storage, keep it in the fridge or freezer.
  3. Beat the eggs with oyster sauce with a fork until there are no more egg whites visible.
  4. Add enough oil to generously coat the bottom of a wok or large non-stick frying pan. Heat over medium until hot. Test the oil temperature by dropping in a little bit of egg. If it puffs up instantly, then it’s ready. Pour the egg mixture in, and just as the edges begin to firm up, quickly push the edges inward to allow the liquid eggs on top to run underneath the first layer. This will help the omelet cook more quickly and evenly. Cook until the bottom is golden brown and the top is set enough to flip. Flip the omelet and cook the other side briefly, just until the eggs are done, about 30 seconds.
  5. Transfer the omelet to a plate. Use a paper towel to dab excess oil off the omelet and cut or tear the omelet into bite-sized pieces into a large mixing bowl. Add the cucumber, mint leaves, shallot, cilantro, scallion, and lemongrass. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the toasted rice powder over the vegetables and add roasted chili flakes to taste. Toss to mix well.
  6. Drizzle the lime juice over the salad and quickly toss to mix, then drizzle the fish sauce and toss well. It’s important to "drizzle" the fish sauce and lime juice over the bowl rather than just dumping it into one spot because the omelet acts like a sponge and will quickly absorb the dressing. This is also why you want to toss right after you drizzle so you can distribute the dressing before it soaks into the omelet.

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Headshot of Perry Santanachote, editor with the Home editorial team at Consumer Reports

Perry Santanachote

I cover the intersection of people, products, and sustainability, and try to provide humorous but useful advice for everyday living. I love to dive deep into how things work, and debunking myths might be my favorite pastime. But what I aim to be above all else is a guiding voice while you're shopping, telling you what's a value, what's a rip-off, and what's just right for you and your family.