1,000 Arabian Bites: A craving for charcoal-grilled chicken salad has a savoury ending
In the early 1990s, the ground floor of Spinneys’ Khalidiya location had a small Bavarian cafe in its centre. It served a chicken club sandwich that didn’t skimp on mayonnaise and converted me into a lifelong fiend. I gave up on club sandwiches after it closed; nobody else’s came close. But mayonnaise was non-negotiable. As a certain breed of food obsessives will understand, there is chicken salad, and then there’s chicken salad; a broad and beautiful spectrum.
The chicken salad I refer to involves shreds or chunks of chicken suspended in a creamy dressing, usually eaten between pieces of bread or over greens. With most recipes, you can substitute chopped hard-boiled eggs to make egg salad, or tuna for tuna salad. Chicken and egg-enriched mayonnaise have such a natural affinity for one another that it brings to mind a role reversal in the Lebanese dish laban ummo (“mother’s milk”). It’s lamb braised in yogurt, though not in the literal vein its name implies, unless you’re eating it on someone’s farm.
Last week, I was craving chicken salad. The idea for a chicken salad made with charcoal-grilled chicken had been on my mind for a while, and it was finally warm enough to pursue. Two chicken salads got made, one the colour of tikka masala but inspired by elotes (Mexican grilled street corn), and the other a rich mustard hue spiked with freshly ground curry. Both dressings contained plenty of crunch, heat, spring onions and coriander, but were otherwise distinct.
Friends came by to help eat the results and one made the mistake of asking for a recipe. I sent an email with an apology in the subject field, certain my “recipe” would read like a bedtime story to anyone who could imagine better things to do than spend two days creating a Platonic chicken salad. There was a recipe linked to most ingredients used; the guajillo sauce that was the base to one marinade; the strained lemon yogurt that was the base of the other; the homemade mayonnaise and crème fraîche used for the dressing; the ginger chutney, pickled celery, pickled raisins, spiced cashews and curry.
None of those were integral to making the salads good; simpler versions would have been equally tasty. But in spite of my frequent urge to overcomplicate things, grilling chicken over charcoal for use in chicken salads is something I heartily recommend, and it would make for a delicious basil or tarragon chicken salad dressed simply in mayonnaise (or, my preference, a combo of mayo and crème fraîche), fresh herbs and plenty of salt and pepper. If using store-bought mayonnaise, brighten it with a little mustard, vinegar or lemon juice.
If I lived in the UAE full-time and had access to tandoori chicken and farouj (the delicious rotisserie birds found at shawarma joints), I’d use both regularly for chicken salad, especially when it’s too hot to grill outdoors or turn on an oven. With enough thoum (garlic mayonnaise) on it, a chicken shawarma is like a warm distant relative to chicken salad itself, but it makes pointless leftovers. Leftover chicken salad, on the other hand, is a reason to wake up tomorrow morning. But in my house, leftover chicken salad is really just hypothetical.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico
Updated: June 11, 2014 04:00 AM