The great classic of Sichuan cuisine most commonly known as ‘Kung Pao Chicken’ is one that will be familiar to many people nowadays as it has become almost ubiquitous on Chinese restaurant menus both within China and around the world. In English, the variations on the name are almost legion and include (but are far from limited to) ‘Gongbo’, ‘Kung Pow’, ‘Kun Po’, and the highly memorable, if slightly unappetizing ‘Koon Poo’, which I actually came upon at restaurant in eastern Canada many years ago.
In Chinese, the name is most commonly seen as 宮保鸡丁 (Traditional: 宮保雞丁), and is generally rendered in Pinyin as Gōngbǎo Jīdīng, meaning ‘Palace Guard Chicken Cubes’. The origins of the dish, and the variations in nomenclature, make for a truly fascinating study and could easily, I think, form the subject of a graduate thesis or a small book. Unfortunately, any real discussion of these topics is a bit beyond the scope of this post so, for today, I will simply share with you one of my recipes for this interesting dish…
A Kung Pao dish essentially consists of a main ingredient (traditionally chicken cubes) served along with peanuts in a spicy hot sauce with sweet and sour notes. Little else other than a little scallion is traditionally added, but in restaurants you will commonly find that the main feature gets bulked out with sweet peppers or some combination of vegetables. The spiciness, in most recipes and restaurant versions, usually comes from chili paste and fresh chilies, but for the true ‘Gōngbǎo’ experience you need to achieve a proper Sichuan ‘scorched chili’ flavor combined with the numbing effect of Sichuan Peppercorns. For today’s experiment, I will be keeping things simple while introducing you to the basic technique for achieving the traditional taste…
- 1lb Chicken Breasts (use thigh meat if you prefer);
- ½ cup dried Chilies; *See Notes
- ¾ cup of unsalted roasted Peanuts;
- 1 Scallion, sliced into thin sections;
- 1 tbsp. minced Garlic;
- 1 tbsp. Sugar; *See Notes
- 1 tbsp. Vinegar;
- 1 tbsp. Sichuan Pepper Oil; *See Notes
- 2 tbsp. Light Soy Sauce;
- 1 tbsp. Sesame Oil (optional); and,
- Cooking Oil (not shown).
First, slice your chicken meat into cubes about the size of a large gaming dice (about 1.5 cm across). At this point, the cubes are generally marinated briefly and then cornstarch, and sometimes egg white, is added before the cubes are fried in hot oil. Here, however, we will adopt my technique of simply blanching the chicken. This is a significant departure from the usual process but I find that it yields a nice, clean result.
Heat a pot of light salted water over a medium flame until just below the boiling point. Add the chicken cubes, stirring to make sure they separate, and blanche them just until their surfaces turn white. As soon as this happens, drain them into a colander and rinse well under cold water to cool the pieces and flush away in ‘bits’. Set the pieces aside for the time being.
When you are ready to cook, heat your wok over a moderately hot flame and add about 4 tablespoons of cooking oil. When the oil begins to shimmer, add your chilies and stir until the give up their fragrance to the oil and turn a nice dark color. Be careful here and don’t let them turn completely black or else the dish will be bitter.
Add the garlic and as soon as you smell the aroma, throw in the chicken and stir until the cubes get a little golden brown in places.
Now add in sugar, the vinegar, and the soy sauce and stir until the sugar melts and the sauce is glossy and thickened slightly.
Add in the scallion, the peanuts and the Sichuan Pepper Oil and continue to cook for a few minutes longer until the chicken is cooked through. Finally, stir in the Sesame Oil, if using, and plate for service.
Tonight, we ate the Kung Pao Chicken along with long-grain rice fried with Shiitake mushroom pieces and some greens from the radishes my wife is growing in the Community greenhouse. My wife and enjoyed the meal very much but I had a couple of issues:
First, there could have been a bit more fire to the dish; the chilies I used are an Indian variety and not terribly hot… next time I will use something a bit more fiery.
Secondly, my wok, I discovered, doesn’t sit low enough to the heat on this new flat top ceramic stove I have. Accordingly the chicken steam-cooked in its own juices rather than sear on the outside. One of the nice features of the blanching method is that, if you later fry the cubes at a high enough temperature, they get a nice crispness on the outside and remain very soft and tender in the middle. On this occasion, the steam cooking altered the texture negatively.
Aside from that, the experiment was generally successful. The scorched chili flavor was just right and the sweet and sour taste was apparent but did not dominate. The Sichuan Pepper Oil was a bit less ‘numbing’ than I usually expect but it lent a lovely, citrusy note to the overall flavor.
In future post, sometime, I will do a slightly different interpretation for you but, until then, you might want to have a look at some earlier versions I cooked before starting this blog. Have a look at the pictures below the notes…
- I have used small round chilies for this experiment. You can use dried long chilies if you like but first cut them into sections whose length is equal to the width of the chicken cubes;
- You can use more sugar if you like (this is common in American renditions) but, traditionally, the dish should really just have a touch of sweetness;
- I like using Sichuan Pepper Oil but you can substitute a quarter cup or so of the whole peppercorns if you like, either adding them before the chili and fishing them out after they flavor the oil, or leaving them in. Personally, I dislike them in the finished dish as they add a gritty quality to the texture.
This version was quite similar to today’s experiment, but if you look closely, you may be able to see that I used Sichuan Peppercorns rather than the oil.
This one, served with Gai Lan and fried rice, was made with long chilies and was quite fiery.