Kung Pao Chicken at the Juxiangyuan Restaurant in Ottawa
Some version of Kung Pao Chicken appears on the menu at almost every Chinese restaurant these days it seems. Some cleave closely to the traditional Chinese dish, while other are quite westernized, and often have only a passing acquaintance with the original form. The rendition at the now defunct Juxiangyuan Restaurant in Ottawa, formed a bridge between the two culinary styles and was one of the better restaurant versions I have been served.
The Kung Pao Chicken at Juxiangyuan was generally what one expects from this dish. It had the Chicken, of course, as well as the required peanuts and chili, all served in a slightly sweet and sour sauce. One thing that was not standard in the Juxiangyuan version, though, was a fair amount of Cucumber.
The basic Kung Pao dish really doesn’t contain vegetables other than perhaps some thinly sliced scallion, but restaurants do have to make a profit and it is rare to find one that serves this dish without additional ingredients to bulk things out a bit. Some go WAY too far with this and you end up with a vegetable melange with a little bit of chicken in it, but here at Juxianyuan, the added cucumber wasn’t added with such a heavy hand that it ruined things. It didn’t add much to my enjoyment, perhaps, but it didn’t diminish it either.
The Chicken, in this case, consisted of breast meat, which is generally expected these days. It was also diced, which is pretty much de rigeur for a proper rendition. Many places provide strips, small slices, or even irregular, ragged ‘bits’, then identify their version by the traditional Chinese name 宮保雞丁 (or 宮保鸡丁 in simplified characters), which is rendered in Pinyin as Gōngbǎo (Kung Pao) Jīdīng. The Jīdīng (which you may have encountered as ‘Guy Ding’ in Cantonese Restaurant dishes) means ‘Chicken Cubes’, so anything else rather misses the point.
All proper Kung Pao dishes have a sweet and sour quality, but the sweetness tends to be a bit more pronounced in Westernized variations. Here, the level of sweetness was probably a bit higher than you might find in Sichuan, for example, but it was not cloyingly so.
What made this dish cleave closer to the traditional Chinese classic was the inclusion of large pieces of dried red chili peppers. In the west, a Kung Pao Chicken dish often uses nothing more than a chili sauce and, ultimately, the result is pretty much a Westernized General Tso’s Chicken dish with peanuts added. In the classic form, dried chili, either whole, or in large sections, are fried in the oil to flavor it and give heat to the dish. At Juxiangyuan, they basically used that technique, although the chili was only briefly fried and didn’t darken to the give the ‘scorched chili’ notes that are the signature of the Sichuan classic.
In any event, as I mentioned above, the Kung Pao Chicken at Juxiangyuan was a decent fusions of traditional and Westernized forms and, though I actually prefer my own renditions, I thought this version was one of the better ones I have been served in a restaurant.