Some restaurant dishes are so good, you can't help but order them every time you have the opportunity. For me, the tiger vegetable salad at the New York–based chain Xi'an Famous Foods is one such dish. It features crisp-tender bits of celery, fragrant cilantro leaves and stems, scallions sliced on the bias, and a few slivers of spicy Longhorn peppers, all tossed with a sweet-salty sesame oil vinaigrette.
It's the perfect complement to everything on the menu; whether you order the cumin-lamb noodle soup, a plate of slippery liang pi (cold skin noodles), or a pork burger and a crowd of spinach dumplings, the tiger vegetable salad is hard to pass up, given just how well its cool spiciness fits with anything. But I've always thought that if the folks at Xi'an offered the vegetables undressed and the dressing on the side, as they do for the liang pi noodles, you could cart the salad home and serve it with any number of meals, from almost any cuisine—a tray of barbecue, say, or a platter of fried clams and fries, or a Japanese breakfast spread, even—and it would be just as complementary.
Of course, Xi'an Famous Foods isn't the only place where you can get this salad. The dish, called lao hu cai and sometimes translated as "tiger salad," appears on the menus of several restaurants focused on the cuisines of Northern China.
One of the most memorable versions I've had (which in no way supplants Xi'an's version in my heart, but is nevertheless very, very tasty) is the one at Fu Run, since the salad there comes topped with the small dried shrimp that Fuchsia Dunlop says are called "shrimp skin" in Chinese. You can find these at large Chinese-American supermarkets, in the section housing refrigerated dried seafood, or buy them online.
As I was cleaning out the staff fridge the other day, I discovered we had a crazy surplus of celery, cilantro, and scallions, so I figured it was high time to devise a recipe for tiger salad.
I make absolutely zero claims about the authenticity of this recipe. It's essentially an approximation of the salad Xi'an Famous Foods offers, but I added the dried-shrimp topping, just because I love the extra pops of shrimp-y saltiness in every other bite.
How to Make Tiger Salad
The main element of this salad is celery, which makes it a wonderful dish to have in your repertoire if you, like me, often find yourself with a surplus of celery. I love celery's flavor and use it in salads of all kinds, including this winter chicory salad. I even enjoy it in stir-fries, where it takes on a kind of bean-sprout quality, if you cut the celery ribs thinly on a bias.
If you're breaking into a new head of celery for this recipe, I'd suggest removing the outer ribs and reserving them for another purpose. I tend to hold on to the outer ribs for stocks and broths, since they're a little woodier and peeling them takes a little more effort than peeling the interior ribs—and peel them you must.
Well, maybe not "must," but I am a very strong advocate for peeling celery; there are few things I find as irritating as a stringy bit of celery. You may not feel the same way, so it's up to you to decide if you're fine with leaving those stringy bits in your salad.
After I've cut the (peeled) celery into batons, I rip apart a small bundle of washed and spun cilantro, using my hands. I reserve any of the thicker stems for use in cooked dishes, or something like nam phrik.
You'll want the more tender stems of cilantro you use in the salad to be rather long, at least three inches. Then I slice some scallions thinly on a bias, to yield elongated rounds, and I do the same with the chili pepper. My local stores don't carry Longhorn peppers, but they do carry long hot peppers.*
You can use any pepper in this salad, from mild to spicy, but part of the dish's appeal is the contrast between the cool vegetables and the spiciness of the pepper slivers, so I strongly suggest trying it with a pepper that's on the spicy side.
Cutting these other vegetables on a bias greatly enhances the experience of eating the salad. The planks of celery, when picked up by a pair of chopsticks, serve to sandwich the cilantro stems, the scallions, and the hot pepper. If the cilantro stems are left long, and the thin slices of scallion and hot pepper are long, too, it requires no futzing at all to get a nice mix of vegetables in each bite.
Once all your vegetables are cut, toss them in a mixing bowl and make the dressing, which is so simple that it barely deserves a description—just stir together rice vinegar, salt, and sugar until the solids dissolve, then add soy sauce and sesame oil and stir again to combine. That's it.
Dress the salad, put it on a single serving plate (or divide it between two plates), and then, if you like, sprinkle over the top a couple tablespoons of those tiny dried shrimp.
It's a salad that transcends both season and cuisine, plus it's easy to make and it goes with everything. What's not to like?