Curry Chicken Salad

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Part of what makes chicken salad so beloved in the South is its adaptability to ingredients and its ability to connect.

Southern Living Curry Chicken Salad in lettuce cups on a tray to serve
Photo:

Antonis Achilleos; Prop Stylist: Christina Daley; Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall

Active Time:
15 mins
Total Time:
1 hrs 15 mins
Servings:
4

Travel and Culture Editor Tara Massouleh McCay moved to Alabama from Illinois when she was a child, but her parents’ journey was much longer. Her mother emigrated from Malaysia in the 1980s; her father from Iran just a few years earlier. They both brought with them a rich culinary history, which they adapted as they settled into their new home.

"One of the first dishes my mom learned after moving to the South was chicken salad," Tara writes.  "She had begun swapping recipes with two other mothers who lived in our apartment building. One, who’d emigrated from South Korea, shared dak kalguksu (Korean chicken-and-zucchini noodle soup). The other, who had Kentucky roots, introduced her to chicken salad, plus a fruitcake starter that most likely still lurks in the depths of my mom’s freezer. Twenty-five years later, the friendships and recipes live on."

In the South, chicken salad is synonymous with bridal showers, family potlucks, and church picnics. Part of what makes chicken salad so beloved is its adaptability. Scour your pantry, and throw in whatever is on hand—pecans, dried cranberries, grapes, herbs. Tara’s mother’s version calls for curry powder, an ingredient that’s not uncommon in many Southern pantries. Still, Tara wasn’t sure her friends would like it.

"My mom served her chicken salad to my bridesmaids on my wedding day," Tara writes. "Worrying that not everyone would welcome her twist on the classic salad, she supplemented with a store-bought tub. Hers was the unanimous favorite. As someone who vividly remembers fretting about what foreign dish her parents might serve on sleepover nights, I was moved to tears by the sight of the empty Tupperware."

Like many first-generation Americans, Tara’s strongest tether to her family’s culture is through their food. "When we were growing up, our parents loved to remind us that we’re 50% Chinese, 50% Iranian, and 100% American,” Tara writes. “Sometimes it worked. Other times, it was decidedly hard to be a mixed-race kid growing up in the Deep South. During those times, I remember thinking the phrase was cheesy and that my parents must not have been so great at math.

"I see now that they were doing their best with what they had—drawing parallels where they could and putting things in a perspective that might make us feel whole. Chicken salad was a surprising connection point. Its ability to transcend cuisine and culture spoke volumes, affirming I didn’t have to be fluent in three languages to belong—because if something as simple as a combination of chicken and mayonnaise could be many things at once, maybe I could too."

Ingredients

  • 2 cups chopped chicken breast meat (from 1 large [4 lb.] rotisserie chicken) 

  • 3 small (1/2 oz. each) celery stalks, finely chopped (about 3/4 cup)

  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise

  • 2 Tbsp. finely chopped white onion (from 1 small [5 oz.] onion)

  • 1 Tbsp. curry powder

  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper

  • Chopped fresh cilantro

Directions

  1. Combine ingredients:

    Place chicken in medium bowl. Add celery, mayonnaise, onion, curry powder, salt, and pepper to chicken; stir to combine.

  2. Chill before serving:

    Cover and refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour. Garnish with cilantro, and serve.

If possible, buy curry powder from an international grocery store for better flavor. The amount of curry powder can be adjusted to taste, but do not add too much or it will make your salad bitter.

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