I’m not usually one for food trends, but suddenly everyone in New York was talking about fried chicken sandwiches. When I realized that my workspace was a few blocks away from the very source, a friend and I broke for an early lunch — only to find the place closed for the day.
I’m not going lie, I was a little annoyed. Changing the hours without notice? That sort of thing happens all the time in France, but I expected more from New York. Fortunately, the inconvenience led to a happy discovery. Scrabbling around for a quick lunch, we ended up at Xi’an Famous Foods, where the dumplings are plump, rustic, and served without ceremony on styrofoam plates. In an instant, I was transported back to China.
Along with lamb dumplings and spicy cold noodles, we tucked into a fresh pile of “lao hu cai,” or tiger salad. I hadn’t thought about it for years, but this is one of the homestyle Chinese dishes that I loved the most during the four years I lived in Beijing. It combines cilantro for fragrance, slivered bell pepper and cucumber for crunch, scallions and chiles for bite. To the artistic Chinese eye, the different shades of green form stripes that look like a tiger’s coat (hence the name).
It felt so incongruous to be chowing down like a “ge men’r” (that’s Chinese for duder) amongst the tattoo parlors of St Mark’s Place, that when I got back to my desk, I checked out tiger salad on Google. It turns out that in the eight (!) years since I left Beijing, lao hu cai has gone the way of facial hair and become hip. You guys, they’re making it with kale. [Insert crying emoji.]
Anyway. When I got home that night, I seized upon the bunch of cilantro wilting in the bottom drawer of my fridge and proclaimed myself a tiger eater. First, I texted my friend Lee — my former fellow cohort in the Beijing expat magazine trenches — to verify my memory of the salad. Then I started chopping. The result is below. If you try it, the transformation to ge men’r is 100% guaranteed :)
Lao hu cai / Tiger salad
Serves four as a side dish
This recipe is a wonderful way to use up large quantities of wilting cilantro. If your herbs are too droopy, completely submerge them in cold water for 10 minutes or so, and they’ll perk right up. When dressing the salad, use the tiniest drops of oil and vinegar — be sparing — you can always add a drop or two more. If you douse the leaves, the salad will turn soggy.
1 bunch cilantro
1/2 green bell pepper
1-2 green onions
1 serrano chile (or to taste)
Rice wine vinegar
Remove the tougher stems from the cilantro. Cut the pepper and cucumber into 1/4-inch strips. Thinly sliver the green onions and the chile. Toss the vegetables together. Add a tiny drop of sesame oil and toss so that the leaves look shiny — they should just barely glow. Add a pinch of salt and drops of rice vinegar and sesame oil. Taste and correct seasonings, adding tiny dashes of salt, vinegar, and oil as necessary. Do not overdress!