The last time I wrote about kung pao chicken was almost four years ago, in July of 2008. I was living in Beijing at the time, and kung pao chicken had been designated the official dish of the 2008 Summer Olympics. It was easy to prepare, more filling than a Clif Bar, and sports venues could even sell it in the stands.
I've made the dish countless times since then, teaching it in classes, and refining it for my upcoming cookbook. Because I have an exciting announcement coming in the next couple of days related to this dish, I'm posting a revised recipe for you to try at home, with a tastier sauce and more streamlined directions. And stay tuned in the next couple of days for more news! (Update: see the Kung Pao Recipe Chicken Kit collaboration with our friends at GrubKit!)
Kung pao chicken, known by most fans as a Sichuan dish, has a much-debated origin within China. One popular theory is that Ding Baozhen, a Qing Dynasty governor in Sichuan province, tried it at a Sichuan restaurant and liked it so much that the dish was named after his official title, Gong Bao (which became “Kung Pao” in English). Others, however, dispute its origin in Sichuan, claiming the governor brought it from his childhood home in Guizhou province. Whichever the case, the important thing is that this highly addictive stir-fried chicken continues to be one of the most popular Chinese dishes in China as well as America.
The succulent, complex sauce of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy flavors is hard to pass up. One faux-pas restaurants in the U.S. sometimes make is adding tons of vegetatables like bell peppers and broccoli. The main protein, blistered chilis, and peanuts should be stars. Chunks of vegetables get in the way in terms of both flavor and appearance.
For years, Americanized versions of kung pao chicken also left out the Sichuan peppercorns because of an import ban, which is a shame since the numbing spiciness ("mala" in Chinese) is integral to the dish. Now, fortunately, Sichuan peppercorn is once again easily found in Chinatown shops and even gourmet chains like Whole Foods.
So pick up some chicken on your way home from work and try this out. This tastes better than any takeout kung pao chicken you may have tried.
Kung Pao Chicken
- 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast or thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
- 8 to 10 dried red chilis
- 5 scallions, white and green parts separated and thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon minced or grated ginger
- ¼ cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
- 1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon Chinese black vinegar, or substitute good-quality balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon hoisin sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper
- Marinate the chicken: In a medium bowl, stir together the soy sauce, rice wine, and cornstarch until the cornstarch is dissolved. Add the chicken and toss to coat. Let stand for 10 minutes.
- Prepare the sauce: In another bowl, combine the vinegar, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, sugar, cornstarch, and Sichuan pepper. Stir until the sugar and cornstarch is dissolved and set aside.
- You may need to turn on your stove’s exhaust fan, because stir-frying dried chilis on high heat can get a little smoky. Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat until a bead of water sizzles and evaporates on contact. Add the peanut oil and swirl to coat the base. Add the chilis and stir-fry for about 30 seconds, until the chilis have just begun to blacken and the oil is slightly fragrant. Add the chicken and stir-fry until no longer pink, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add the scallion whites, garlic, and ginger, and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Pour in the sauce and mix to coat the other ingredients. Stir in the peanuts and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a serving plate, sprinkle the scallion greens on top, and serve.