What Chicken Salad Helped Me Understand About My Mixed Heritage
This beloved Southern dish contains a multitude of cultures.
If there’s one regret my parents have about my and my brother’s upbringing (other than the sassiness that I apparently never got over) it’s that they didn’t teach us their mother tongue. My mother, who immigrated from Malaysia in the early 80s, speaks Chinese. My father, who left Iran a few years ago, speaks Farsi. English was their common ground. When they moved from Illinois to Alabama in time to start a family, it was a foregone conclusion. Other than the few memorized phrases we dusted off for long-distance phone calls with loved ones, my brother and I spoke exclusively English. Years later, when we started applying to colleges, we joined our parents in lamenting that “trilingual” didn’t join our list of academic accomplishments.
Although I am not fluent, or even functioning, in Mandarin or Farsi, my parents made sure I was fluent in another language. Like many first-generation Americans, food was — and still is — my strongest connection to culture. I grew up eating my parents’ home country cuisine almost every night. Slippery stir-fried noodles and my mom’s soy-glazed salty short ribs. Beef stew with herbs, hazelnut lentil rice and my dad’s smoked eggplant dip. Hamburger Helper and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese were rare specials.
One of the first dishes my mom learned after moving down south was chicken salad. She had started swapping recipes with two other moms who lived in our building. One, who immigrated from South Korea, shared dak kalguksu (Korean chicken and zucchini noodle soup). The other, who had roots in Kentucky, introduced her to the chicken salad, as well as a fruitcake entrée that’s probably still hiding in the back of my mom’s freezer. Twenty-five years later, friendships and recipes endure.
Part of what makes chicken salad so popular is its adaptability. Scour your pantry and throw everything you have on hand – pecans, chopped apples, dried cranberries, herbs, poppy seeds – into the mix. My mother’s recipe calls for the addition of curry powder. To date, hers is the only version that my mayo-averse 10th-generation Southern husband is happy to eat.
In the South, chicken salad is synonymous with bridal and baby showers, church potlucks and family picnics. If there are more than eight people around, you can bet the chicken salad will show up. In Iran, the same goes for a dish called Salad Olivieh. Although it has roots in Russia, Salad Olivieh is a Southern salad in every sense of the word. Imagine a mix of chicken, potato and egg salads and you have Salad Olivieh.
And just as Southerners compare pound cake at a potluck, there’s always the question of which version is better.
In Iran, Salad Olivieh is the unofficial dish of Sizdah Bedarthe last day of the Persian New Year (Nowruz) celebration that begins on the first day of spring and lasts for two weeks. Also known as Nature Day, it is bad luck to stay indoors Sizdah Bedar, so everyone is heading to a park for an all-day picnic with family and friends. The Olivieh salad is always there in abundance. And just as Southerners compare pound cake at a potluck, there’s always the question of which version is better. I will go to the grave saying that my father is the winner by far. It’s soft and creamy with a nice bite of bright green peas.
Growing up, my parents liked to remind me and my brother that we were 50% Chinese, 50% Iranian, and 100% American. Sometimes it worked. Other times, it was decidedly tough being a mixed-race kid growing up in the Deep South. At that time, I remember thinking that the phrase was corny and that my parents must not be so good at math.
I see now that they were doing the best they could with what they had, drawing parallels where they could and putting things into perspective that might make us feel together. The chicken salad was one of those surprising connection points. Her quiet ability to transcend cuisine and culture spoke volumes, saying I didn’t need to be fluent in three languages to belong. Because if something as simple as chicken and mayonnaise could be more than one thing, then maybe me too.
Curried Chicken Salad
Since no Southern women’s gathering is complete without chicken salad, my mom served this dish to my bridesmaids on my wedding day. (We also had Sonic hot dogs, but that’s neither here nor there.) Afraid that not everyone would welcome her version of the classic salad, she topped it off with a store-bought tub. Hers was the unanimous favorite. For someone who vividly remembers worrying about what foreign dish their parents might serve at sleepovers, the sight of their empty Tupperware moved me to tears.
Get the recipe: Chicken Curry Salad
Persian Salad Olivieh
I wasn’t too keen on cooking growing up, but I always jumped at the chance to help make Salad Olivieh. My dad would boil the potatoes, chicken, and eggs, then spread a vinyl tablecloth on our living room floor. If it was a warmer spring, he would open the windows to let in the breeze as we sat cross-legged, peeling potatoes and shredding chicken breast with our bare hands.
My favorite part came at the end when I had the honor of smoothing the salad in a casserole dish, then putting on my artist cap. Not a naturally colorful dish, Salad Olivieh is enhanced with garnishes of bright green peas and fuchsia radishes and their dark green leaves. It is customary to decorate the dish according to the spring theme. For me, that meant arranging the vegetables in the shape of flowers and waiting for my father’s generous oohs and ahhs.
Get the recipe: Persian Salad Olivieh
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Read the original article on Southern Living.