Monday, May 28, 2012

Kung pao chicken

This is a dish that even most people who don't adore Chinese food tend to know and love. Kung Pao Chicken has been around for quite a while now here in the States -- at least from the Eighties, as far as I can remember -- so long that it's morphed into sort of a cliche in many restaurants. 

Some serve up really terrible versions that lack anything other than saltiness and peanuts, and that's too bad, because this is truly an inspired combination of sweet, sour, spice, heat, chicken, veggies, and -- yes -- peanuts. A signature dish of Sichuan province, this deserves some respect.

One place you can find it is in Fuchsia Dunlop's intensely wonderful Land of Plenty, which is not only a book of authentic Sichuan recipes, but also a memoir of her moving and (at times) quite funny months of being the first white woman to attend a cooking school in Chengdu. So, if you love Sichuan-style cooking, this is a great place to start.

Ground Sichuan peppercorns in marinade
Fuchsia has a lovely recipe for Kung Pao Chicken in her book, of course, and I adore it. Her version is all about the chicken, and she includes a story about how the story got its moniker: the dish was named after a late Qing dynasty governor of Sichuan called Ding Baozhen (as gongbao, or "kung pao," was his official title); he doted on this dish, so it got named after him. She goes on to relate the problems this caused the radicals during the Cultural Revolution, who renamed it until it was "rehabilitated" in the 1980s.

The story I heard was ever so slightly different. According to the food writer Huang Shaomo, Mr. Ding was the one who created this dish. (These names are particularly funny in Chinese because the title of this dish is Gongbao zhiding "Kung pao chicken cubes," and the creator's name is the name of this dish backwards, sort of: Ding Gongbao.) According to Mr. Huang, he used pretty much the same recipe for different main ingredients, so he had Kung Pao Lamb, Kung Pao Pork, Kung Pao Shrimp... you name it. 

But anyway, the variations on this story are probably as numerous as the recipes for this chicken dish. Fuchsia's version, like I said, focuses on the chicken, and other than the whites of some scallions, there really isn't a whole lot of vegetable matter in there. 

Plenty of veggies to add plenty of crunch
In my version, though, sweet red peppers and crunchy celery add all sorts of textural layers. This not only makes the dish quite colorful, but it also turns this into an ideal candidate for a one-dish supper: just pile the Kung Pao Chicken on top of a bowl of rice and settle down for a wonderful meal. Again, this is something that I personally like, and as with so many of these dishes, you too can play around with the ingredients to your heart's content until you find the balance that makes you smile.

I am not a huge fan, for example, of whole Sichuan peppercorns in stir-fries. These hard little nuggets tend to startle me out of my reveries whenever I bite down on them. So, what I've done is substitute ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns for the whole ones and add them to the marinade, and this adds just the right numbing edge for my taste. (But if you prefer them, well then, just add a teaspoon of the whole peppers to the chilies instead of the ground ones to the marinade.)

Also, I really love lots and lots of heat here, so I've doubled down on the dried chilies; they can be halved or reduced even further if you are not a chiliehead. If you prepare them the way that I suggest, you will find that they will soften and almost melt into the sauce as you work your way through the dish, which means that while you might start picking them out at the beginning, by dinner's end they will have slithered into the chicken and mellowed out.

One thing I suggest you do is to use kitchen shears or scissors to cut up the dried Thai chilies. This way, you can easily cut the chilies into small pieces without having them ricochet all over the kitchen. First, nip off the stem ends and then guillotine the chilies into half-inch sections. This loosens the seeds, which you can easily shake out the pods by lifting up the chilies and shaking them between your fingertips. 

An easy way with dried chilies
There's really nothing wrong with the seeds, if you prefer to keep them, of course. But I find that the seeds -- like the whole Sichuan peppercorns -- interfere with my enjoyment of a dish, so I dispense with them. This is all subjective, of course, and you should keep them in or toss them out as you see fit.

The final embellishment is fresh fried peanuts. Fuchsia talks about cashews as an elegant alternative, but I've never managed to get beyond peanuts. My peanut-loving husband would be very upset if anything ever derailed his chances for having peanuts for dinner, so there you have it. I imagine almonds and macadamia nuts might be splendid, too. But alas, I am destined to only speculate.

Kung pao chicken 
Gongbao jiding 宮保雞丁
Serves 2 as a main dish over rice, or 4 as part of a multicourse meal

12 ounces raw boneless chicken (boned and skinned thigh meat highly recommended; about 5 thighs)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 teaspoon toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns
2 teaspoons cornstarch

2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon balsamic (or other good dark) vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Fry the dried peppers
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon cornstarch

The rest:
½ red bell (sweet) pepper
3 stalks celery
6 green onions
4 cloves garlic
½ inch fresh ginger, peeled and minced
5 to 15 dried Thai chilies (I prefer the maximum)
4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
½ cup fried peanuts, unsalted

1. Rinse the chicken, pat it dry, and cut it into ½-inch dice. Place the chicken in a small work bowl with the soy sauce, rice wine, ground Sichuan peppercorns, and cornstarch. Toss them together and let the chicken marinate while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Mix together the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

3. Cut the red bell pepper and celery into ½-inch dice. Cut the whites of the green onions into ½-inch rounds, and cut the green sections of two of the onions into ½-inch pieces for garnish. Lightly smash the garlic and chop it finely; add it to the ginger. Use kitchen shears as directed above to cut the dried chilies into ½-inch pieces, discarding the stem ends and the seeds. 

4. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a wok over high and add the red bell pepper and celery to the wok. Quickly stir-fry them over high heat until the rawness is barely gone; remove them to the serving dish. 

5. Heat the rest of the oil in the wok over high and add the dried chili peppers; quickly fry them to release their aroma, about 10 seconds, and then add the garlic and ginger. Stir-fry these together for a few seconds and add the chicken. Stir-fry the chicken over high until the chicken turns white; add the whites of the onion. Continue to stir-fry the chicken until it is lightly browned and cooked through. Add the bell pepper and celery, toss, and then add the sauce. Quickly toss these together, and as soon as the sauce thickens, taste it and adjust the seasoning, and then add the peanuts and the green leaves of the onions. Serve immediately.


  1. I'm trying this tonight. I'm a huge fan of kungpao chicken. (I think gungbao sounds better!) I'll let you know how it turns out.


    1. I agree, gongbao does sound better! Anxious to hear how you like it, Terri.