I am filled with nostalgia for Kalisa’s Cannery Row whenever I make this fresh, gingery mock chicken Papaya Salad. Can you believe the inspiration comes from a recipe I learned over 40 years ago? Even more astonishing is the flamboyant character who taught me how to make it.
That larger than life person was none other than the Queen of Cannery Row herself, Kalisa Moore. Kalisa opened her first restaurant on Cannery Row in the 1950s during the days of infamous author John Steinbeck. Back then, my grandmother lived a few blocks up the hill from Cannery Row. Thus, she could tell captivating stories about the live music and belly dancers at Kalisa’s place. Artists and bohemians clomped across the wooden floors of her establishment, filling chairs and tables into the wee hours.
By the time I met Kalisa, the belly dancers were gone. The canning era and it’s remarkable people had all but faded away. But Kalisa was as colorful as ever. When I say colorful, I mean it literally. Not only did Kalisa drive a converted ambulance, but she had painted it bright orange. When she made the 3-mile drive from Cannery Row to Asilomar Beach, you couldn’t miss her.
Perhaps you are wondering though why Kalisa regularly drove to Asilomar Beach? Well, to this day, people mention her name on Cannery Row. But in the shadow of that greatness, there is a back story I suspect few people know. You see, when I knew Kalisa, she had a second restaurant. It was nestled under the wings of the modest Beachcomber Inn that crowns Asilomar Beach.
It just so happens that the first job I held out of high school was cooking for Kalisa at that restaurant. Just like her orange ambulance, you knew when she had entered the building. I always felt a bit of nervousness when she came to check on us. However, she was never phased by my fear. Whether she was instructing me how to tend the 24-hour stockpot on the stove or ladle spoonfuls of homemade garlic oil for the remoulade, it was all done boldly and matter of factly.
Likewise, the papaya salad I was schooled in seemed daring at the time. I certainly hadn’t seen anything like it anywhere else. The juicy combination of sweet papaya, cool chicken, and candied ginger all tossed in the greens struck me from the start. How did she dream it up? It was utterly delicious, and I strove to make each order as much to her specifications as I could.
Sadly, Kalisa has passed away. I will never know what she might think of my plant-based version made with tofu mock-chicken. However, somehow I suspect she would applaud me more than chastise the innovation. After all, I never once saw her give in to convention.
My cilantro lime dressing is insanely delicious. It compliments beautifully the crisp lettuce, crunchy water chestnuts, savory mock chicken and sweet, juicy papaya. I know I love the salad as much as ever and will always thank Kalisa for taking me under her wing.
Kalisa’s Cannery Row Papaya Salad
Cilantro Lime Dressing
- 6 TB avocado oil
- 3 TB fresh lime juice
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 TB mild honey
- 1 small clove garlic, finely grated
- 2 TB sliced cilantro
- 2 cups water
- 1 TB Better Than Chicken Flavor Mix*
- 1 lb. medium firm tofu
- 6 cups torn romaine lettuce
- 2 cups baby spinach
- 2/3 cup sliced water chestnuts
- 2 cups sliced papaya
- 1 cup thinly sliced baby Asian cucumber
- 1/3 cup chopped candied ginger
- 1/2 cup sliced green onions
- 1 lime quartered
- 2 small thai red chilies, optional
Cilantro Lime Dressing
- Place everything except cilantro in a blender. Blend dressing until creamy. Pour into a small jar. Add sliced cilantro and shake to mix.
- Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
- Drain tofu. Slice 1/4 inch thick. Cut into squares two to three inches across. Slice squares in half to make triangles.
- Bring water to a boil. Stir in Better Than Chicken Flavor Mix. Add tofu and adjust heat to a soft boil. Cook tofu for 15 minutes.
- Set a rack over a bowl or large plate. Carefully remove tofu from cooking broth. Let seasoned tofu drain on rack.
- Transfer pieces of tofu to parchment lined cookie sheet. Bake 15-20 minutes, flipping over halfway through.
- Remove tofu from oven and let cool on a plate while composing salads.
- Divide torn romaine and baby spinach between
4plates. Top with sliced water chestnuts, cucumber, and papaya.
- Add tofu mock chicken. Top with sliced green onions and candied ginger. Place a slice of lime on each salad.
- Pour dressing over salads just before serving. Place a lime wedge on each salad. Garnish with thinly sliced Thai red chili if desired.