Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Salads play an integral role in Vietnamese cuisine. They often accompany a larger meal as part of a celebration or can be served as a light standalone dish. Vietnamese chicken and cabbage salad, or gỏi gà bắp cải—gỏi the general term for salad, or nộm in northern Vietnam, gà meaning chicken, and bắp cải for cabbage—is a quintessential example. The combination of tender chicken, crunchy cabbage, sweet carrots, and pickled onions is tossed with tangy vinegar brine and topped with crispy shallots and peanuts. It’s then served with a side of aromatic dipping sauce to create an impressive medley of textures and flavors.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

For as long as I can remember, Vietnamese chicken and cabbage salad has been a staple at every family celebration, including special holidays, birthday parties, engagement parties, and even death anniversaries. It’s often served alongside chicken congee at these festive family feasts. This makes sense since the two dishes are linked in preparation: The chicken that is simmered to make the congee broth is cooled down, shredded, and incorporated into this refreshing salad. It’s a practical and delicious way to use chicken to its fullest. 

This refreshing salad needn’t be reserved for just special occasions, though. In my recipe, I’ve broken down the preparation of the chicken, cabbage, carrots, pickled onion, fried shallots, and the dipping sauce into their core components, making this seemingly complicated medley of flavors and textures approachable for any day of the week.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

One of the easiest ways to streamline the process is to make some of the components in advance. The pickled red onion, the dipping sauce (nước chấm), and the fried shallots can all be made a day or two ahead and stored separately. Alternatively, they can also be made while poaching and resting the chicken.

The dipping sauce, or nước chấm, is made from a combination of garlic, ginger, bird’s-eye chile, sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, and water. To enhance the flavor of the garlic and ginger, I like to use a mortar and pestle to crush their cells and release more of their aromatic flavor compounds.

While there are several methods for cooking the chicken breasts, such as roasting, boiling, or steaming, my go-to method is gently poaching the chicken with aromatics like scallion and ginger. It’s a method used in Daniel Gritzer’s poached chicken recipe, and results in consistently tender and succulent meat. 

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

The key to perfectly poached chicken that is exceptionally plump and tender, not tight or dry, is maintaining a water temperature between 160 and 180°F (70 to 80°C). The final temperature of the chicken breast meat should be 150℉ (66℃), which is lower than the official USDA guidance of 165℉ (74℃). I assure you that since the chicken is held at these elevated temperatures for so long, the chicken will be perfectly safe to eat—eliminating pathogens like salmonella isn’t just a function of temperature but also time. The result, meanwhile, will be much more juicy, than if you were to cook it to a higher internal temperature. You can also adjust the poaching aromatics to your liking by adding onion, lemongrass, or makrut lime leaves to the pot.

As the chicken poaches, use your time efficiently to shred the cabbage and carrots and pickle the onion. I prefer using a mandoline to slice all three as evenly and thinly as possible (the shredding disk of a food processor or even some solid basic knife skills will also work).

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

While the contrasting textures of the succulent chicken and crunchy vegetables are a hallmark feature of this salad, it’s important to note we don’t want the vegetables too crunchy. Ideally the vegetables should retain some bite, but not be as firm as they are when plain and raw. I like to gently soften the cabbage and carrot by tossing with the pickled onions and its vinegar brine for about one hour before serving the salad, just long enough to wilt the vegetables slightly, while still preserving some crunch. I also add the shredded chicken to the pickle brine at the same time, giving it a chance to soak in the brine as the flavors meld.

After an hour of sitting, the salad is ready to toss with fresh herbs and top with crispy fried shallots and peanuts. Make sure to hold off on adding these final elements until right before serving to retain their texture. At this point, you’ll want to enjoy the salad right away with the side of dipping sauce, since the longer the salad sits, the soggier it will become.

For the Chicken: In a large saucepan, combine water and salt, stirring until salt dissolves. Add chicken, scallion, and ginger and set over medium-high heat until water temperature reaches between 150 and 160°F (65 to 70°C) on an instant-read thermometer. Cook, adjusting heat to maintain water temperature in the 150–180°F (65–80°C) range, until the thickest part of chicken registers 150°F (65°C) on an instant-read thermometer, about 1 hour. Remove chicken from broth and let rest until cool enough to handle. Strain broth and reserve for another use. Remove and discard chicken skin, then shred meat with your hands and set aside.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

For the Pickled Red Onion: In a non-reactive bowl, combine vinegar, water, and sugar, and stir until sugar dissolves. Stir in onion and let sit at room temperature for 1 hour.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

For the Ginger Dipping Sauce: Meanwhile, using a mortar and pestle, pound garlic and ginger together with sugar (alternatively, use the back of a knife to bruise the garlic and ginger then mince finely, and stir with sugar in a small bowl). Add warm water, fish sauce, and lime juice, then stir to combine. Transfer sauce to a serving bowl and set aside until ready to use.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

For the Fried Shallots: In a small saucepan, heat oil to 300°F (150°C) over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and fry, stirring constantly for even cooking and adjusting heat as needed to maintain oil temperature between 250 and 275°F (120-135°C), until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the fried shallots to a paper-towel lined plate and season immediately with salt. 

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

For the Salad: One hour before serving, thoroughly toss together shredded chicken with cabbage, carrots, and the reserved pickled onion with its pickling juice. 

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

To roast peanuts, preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Place peanuts on a baking sheet lined with foil and roast until golden, 10-12 minutes; check frequently to make sure they don’t burn. Allow to cool, then roughly chop.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

When ready to serve, toss the chicken salad with the fresh coriander and perilla and top with the reserved fried shallots and roasted peanuts. Serve with the ginger dipping sauce.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Special Equipment

Mandoline, mortar and pestle, instant-read or deep-fry thermometer 

Notes

Use a mandoline or the shredding disc attachment of a food processor for easier and faster slicing of the shallot and cabbage.

A mandoline will also create the most even rounds of shallot for frying.

I prefer a combination of green and purple cabbage for a vibrant mix of color in the salad. Feel free to use 5 cups of all green or all purple cabbage in the recipe instead of a combination of the 2 types of cabbage. 

This salad is a great way to use leftover chicken you already have on hand. Omit step 4 and use 2 to 3 cups shredded chicken (dark or white meat will both work well).

Make-Ahead and Storage

The dipping sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days. 

The fried shallots can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 months.

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