This dish appears on the menu of Ottawa’s Palais Imperial as ‘Imperial Style Chicken (spicy)’. However the Chinese character entry (reproduced in the inset in the above picture) reads Gōngbǎo jīdīng, and translates, in its most common spelling form as Kung Pao Chicken (Cubes).
For ages, I have rather thought of starting an ongoing blog feature here called ‘The Kung Pao Chronicles’ as I find this a very interesting dish indeed. I still may get around to doing that someday (maybe), but, for now, I am going to continue trying this widely variable dish wherever, and whenever I get the chance and I may, occasionally, share the experience here.
My interest lies mostly in the fact that I have come to regard ‘Kung Pao dishes’ as being a good way to assess a Chinese restaurant. This is because you typically find it reproduced it three ways:
- Chinese style;
- Westernized Chinese style; and,
- Straying so far from the basic theme as to be neither of the first two.
I am not going to go on at great length about the characteristics of these, except to say that the latter case will generally consist of some chicken with peanuts, or cashews, in some sort of hot sauce. This is true of all three cases, of course, but the basic Chinese tradition has certain other essential features as well. In today’s case, Palais Imperial follows the essential idea pretty well…
The one thing that is to be noted is that there is a lot of ‘bulk’ here in the form of vegetables, and indeed, this could really be called ‘Kung Pao Veggies with a Bit of Chicken Added’. Most recipes will often only include some green onion along with the chicken and peanuts, but here, the Palais Imperial includes red and green bell pepper, water chestnuts, celery, carrot, bamboo shoot, baby corn, and mushrooms. To be fair, of course, a restaurant has to be cost conscious, and a certain amount of filler is to be expected. Here though, it really was quite a lot at the expense of the chicken quantity.
The chicken in this dish was actually cut more in slices (piàn), rather than dice, or cubes (ding), but this is hardly fatal to a ‘proper’ Kung Pao dish, and I note that Palais Imperial used the darker thigh meat, which is more in keeping with Chinese tradition, as opposed to the white breast meat more commonly used in westernized versions.
The ‘heat’ for this version comes from the addition of Thai style dried red chili and this restaurant has given the dish the one of the signature ‘Kung Pao’ flavor elements, which is a ‘scorched’ chili flavor obtained by frying the chilies in the cooking oil until they darken before adding the other ingredients. This allows the unique flavor, and the heat, to permeate the finished product.
Beyond the chili heat, a Kung Pao dish is also slightly sweet and sour. In westernized versions, both elements tend to get exaggerated, of ten to the point that the sauce is pretty much the same sort of ‘sweet and sour sauce’ typical in these restaurants. The Chinese version is much more understated but, funnily enough, this place has actually gone to the other extreme. There is a tiny bit of sweetness, but very little ‘tang’. All in all, though, the dish I was given was delicious, with just the right amount of heat for me. They seem to cleave pretty close to the traditional Chinese original, with the deviations being no more than their proprietary, individual touches…