I really want to memorize the following Chinese phrase:
Zhè bùshì gōng bǎo jī dīng. Nǐ de zǔxiān huì gǎndào xiūchǐ.
(That’s not Kung Pao Chicken. Your ancestors would be ashamed.)
The number of times I have ordered Kung Pao chicken in a Chinese restaurant and not received it is, sadly, far too often. My first exposure to it, and Sichuan cooking, was a place called Mandarin Village in Northbrook, IL, in the mid 1970s (but long since gone). My favorites there were Kung Pao Chicken, and Beef with White Onion. The latter was a sesame-oil-rich dish with sweet sauteed onions, really very basic. And the Kung Pao? It was also oily, and spicy, garlicky, with a hint of sweet and a hint of vinegar. Chicken. Peanuts. Scallions. That’s it.
Only a couple places in Chicagoland are capable of it, and since they make so many other great Sichuan dishes, I don’t tend to order it (Lao Sze Chuan in Chicago’s Chinatown and elsewhere, and Asian Bistro in Arlington Heights). Everyone else makes the following errors, that basically boil down to “any old stir fry, with peanuts and chiles added.”
- Vegetables by the dozens. Mushrooms, peapods, onion, bell pepper, carrot, bean sprouts, broccoli and that dreaded celery. I can tolerate (and even like) some bell pepper and other crunchy veg, but this should be all about the chicken.
- Slices of bland chicken breast. Nope. It should be precise cubes of thigh. It needs to taste of poultry.
- Bland bland bland. Partly because all those veg are in there, and lousy chicken, but mainly because there’s not enough garlic and ginger, too little chile, and no vinegar. This shouldn’t be a mouth-searing spicy dish, but it should be pleasantly hot.
- Glop. Too much cornstarch. This shouldn’t be a typical Chinese brown sauce.
So, I make it at home, using Fuschia Dunlops version, with a couple changes. The first time I made it from her book, Land of Plenty it was a revelation: This is the flavor I’ve been missing for about 30 years. I make this regularly, adding a bit of veg to fill it out and add more crunch — a separate green vegetable would be the right way, but this makes it a little easier for weeknight dinner.
Kung Pao Chicken
Serves 2 or 3. Adapted from Fuschia Dunlop.
About 3/4 lb (340g) boneless, skinless chicken thighs (breast permissible, but not as good)
3 cloves of garlic, chopped, and an equal amount of ginger
5 spring onions
4 tbs oil, divided
1/2 cup (50g or so) bell pepper, diced to 1/2″ (1.5cm)
1/2 cup (50g or so) carrot, cut into 1/2″ (1.5cm) cubes
about 10 chiles de arbol (if you can find Facing Heaven chiles, drop me a note)
2/3 cup (75g) roasted peanuts
½ tsp (2.5g) salt
2 tsp (10ml) soy sauce
1 tsp (5ml) Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry, but get the wine)
1½ tsp (7.5g) potato flour or a little more than that in cornstarch
1 tbsp (15ml) water
3 tsp (45g) sugar
¾ tsp (4g) potato flour, or a little more than that in cornstarch
2 tsp (10ml) soy sauce
3 tsp (15ml) Chinkiang vinegar — THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE
1 tsp (5ml) sesame oil
1 tbsp (15ml) water
- Trim any large pieces of fat from the chicken, then place it in the freezer in a single layer, for a half-hour to an hour to make slicing easier.
- Remove the stems from the chiles, and break into 1-2″ pieces, trying to keep as few of the seeds as possible
- Remove the whiskers from the scallions, and cut 1/2″ rounds, only into the areas where it’s still a solid round (I go a bit past the pure white, but not much).
- Place in a small bowl with the chopped garlic and ginger. You don’t want pressed garlic or grated ginger here, but chop into small pieces.
- Slice about half of the remaining greens parts of the scallions into very thin rings — about 1/4 cup (60ml) is plenty.
- Mix all the sauce ingredients together in a measuring cup. Add the starch last, sprinkling while you stir vigorously, or you’ll get potato-starch dumplings.
I keep meaning to try this with the starch left out, to see if I get the oily texture of Mandarin Village, but I never remember when I’m reading from Dunlop’s book.
- Remove the chicken from the freezer and dice into 1/2″ (1.5cm) pieces, trying to keep everything the same size.
- Place chicken in a bowl. Add the marinade ingredients and toss to mix. Allow to sit while the rest of the preparation is done
- Heat a wok on high heat for at least a minute. Add two tablespoons of oil, and allow it to heat up for 15 seconds or so.
- Add the carrots and peppers, and stir-fry until they’re tender but still crisp. Remove to a serving dish.
- Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, allow to get back to temperature.
- Add the chiles and allow to toast for about 15 seconds. You can remove these to the serving dish to avoid scorching.
- Add the chicken and marinade, and spread in the wok. Don’t stir too much initially, you want a little searing. Turn them after about a half-minute, then stir fry until just opaque.
- Add the garlic, ginger and scallion disks, stir fry for a half minute
This is another of the essential steps: cook the garlic and ginger at the start, like most stir-fries, and their flavor is mellowed out by the time the chicken is done. This keeps the garlic and ginger flavors strong.
- Pour the vegetables and peppers back into the wok and add the sauce (stirring first to distribute the starch), stir fry until it thickens
- Add the peanuts and scallion greens and serve
Note: Dunlop calls for Sichuan Peppercorns to be toasted with the chiles. I’m not fond of their texture (Sue feels even more strongly about that), and it’s not a big part of the flavor here. You can add them, or a sprinkle of Sichuan Peppercorn Oil.
I just made a double batch of this last weekend for a party and thankfully had leftovers which I discovered in the fridge today… but I never got around to taking a picture when it was fresh and hot.