I’m not happy to admit it, but now and then I get an urge for takeout… Chinese takeout in particular. However, I live in a city with ghastly takeout offerings. So what’s a food blogger to do? Make his own damn Chinese takeout classics, of course!
Kung Pao Chicken! The best Chinese stir fry of all time?
And we’re doing that today with one of my favorite Chinese dishes of all time. A dish that I, and many before me, have fallen in love with over the years, a classic in Chinese restaurants across the globe and the perhaps most iconic dish to ever make it into a paper takeout container: Kung Pao Chicken! Or marinated chicken in a perfectly balanced spicy sauce garnished with peanuts, chilies and spring onion, if you will…
Why has this particular dish become the object of my desire? Well, aside from being tasty and containing plenty of chilies (yay!), this dish – unlike other Chinese takeout favourites like, say, broccoli beef, which I’ve historically referred to as “as traditionally Chinese as apple pie” is actually reasonably authentically Chinese. Not to mention easy to make at home! Well, granted, it takes a bit of chopping, frying and stirring and you may have to turn on the fan and crack a window. But it’s about as fast to make at home as ordering takeout would otherwise be, and a hell of a lot more rewarding!
In need of a quick Kung Pao Chicken fix? Jump straight to the recipe! Curious to learn more about the dish, it’s ingredients and the secrets to a stellar stir fry? Then settle down and read on, my friend!
You see, the subject of Kung Pao Chicken is the perfect excuse to have a look at a few speciality ingredients. It’s also the perfect reason to examine how building a simple stir fry in a blazing hot wok can create amazing layers of flavor in no time using only a bit of knowledge about our ingredients and the timing with which to add them. Before we get too caught up on ingredients and the anatomy of a stir fry, though, lets take a minute for the uninitiated and answer the question: what the hell is Kung Pao Chicken!?
Kung Pao Chicken History: Who is this Kung Pao and what am I doing to his chicken?
Kung Pao chicken is a traditional dish from China’s Sichuan province. In its basic form, it consists of tender chicken bits marinated in a combination of soy sauce and rice wine, then stir fried with spring onions, peanuts, plenty of red chilies and tossed in a sauce, containing amongst other things, some deceitful little f*ckers known as Sichuan peppercorns. That’s right, friends, we’ve got a special ingredient today! But more on those later – first, as always, a bit of culinary history:
Kung Pao Chicken may be as much as 200 years old, possibly even more. The exact origins of the dish, like so many other great dishes, are completely shrouded in mystery. It is, however, commonly believed to have been named after a certain Ding Baozhen, governor of the Sichuan Province in the later years of the Quing Dynasty. Baozhen’s official title was Gongbao or Kung Pao, literally Palace Guardian, and Baozhen apparently loved the dish so much, that it eventually came to bear not his name, but his title: Kung Pao Chicken, or Palace Guardian Chicken.
Why anyone would let chickens guard palaces is anybody’s guess, but the dish certainly achieved widespread popularity over the course of the next century or so. Right up until the dawn of Chairman Mao’s Chinese Cultural Revolution, that is, where neither emperors nor their servants enjoyed much popularity amongst the general public. As a result, the name of the dish changed from the seemingly controversial Kung Pao Chicken to the more politically correct versions Hongbao Jiding, literally “fast-fried chicken cubes” or Hula Jiding, “chicken served with seared chilies”. It wasn’t until another revolution in the form of Deng Xiaoping’s 1980’s reforms that the dish received political rehabilitation, regained its original name and resumed its climb towards widespread international appeal.
That’ one theory, any way. Other sources tell the story quite differently, stating that the dish may not be Sichuan in heritage at all, but brought to the Sichuan province by Baozhen, who knew the dish from this childhood in Guizhou province.
Regardless of its heritage, the simple yet perfect combination of succulent chicken, crunchy peanuts and fiery chilies served in a sauce containing a perfect balance of flavors: salty, sweet, sour and umami has become a worldwide hit consumed daily by millions of people across the globe from Beijing to San Francisco… In about a million different variations!
And now, here I am, with my version to add to millions of interpretations! Why? Well, it’s one of my favorite Chinese-ish dishes. It is also the sum of many a fond food memory, quite a few tried and tested recipes, and a hefty measure of trial and error. All in an effort to create a version of Kung Pao Chicken to suit my standards and taste buds and one that is, to paraphrase myself, hopefully a little more traditionally Chinese than apple pie. It’s my take on a classic and I’m proud enough of it that I’m gonna share it with you.
Firstly, though, we should start by having a look at the parts that make up Kung Pao Chicken. Some of them are more common than others, you see, and by knowing our ingredients, however trivial they seem, we can learn a lot about maximizing flavor and texture of a stir fry.
Kung Pao Chicken Basics: Of Peanuts and Chicken thighs
Quite a few ingredients go into making Kung Pao Chicken ranging from the familiar over the unknown to the slightly bizarre. In the familiar end of the spectrum, we have ingredients such as peanuts and chicken; two ingredients that you wouldn’t think I’d have much to say about. Well, wrong again! I do have a few words to say: you may even call them cardinal stir fry rules.
Cardinal Stir Fry Rule No. 1: Unsalted peanuts for stir frys, please!
When shopping peanuts for Kung Pao Chicken and stir frys in general, you’ll want raw, unsalted peanuts. Unlike their roasted, salted kin, they’re usually found in the produce section rather than the snack aisle and don’t worry, they’re usually found shelled and blanched, too, so you won’t have to do the hard work yourself. Why use raw, unsalted peanuts? Glad you asked! For starters, we will be frying our peanuts in a blazingly hot wok as an important step of our recipe, getting them nicely toasted and flavorful in the process. And speaking of flavors, we will be bathing our chicken in a marinade and a sauce filled with salty ingredients and really have no need for the excess salt that overly salted peanuts bring to the party. So, really, give those unsalted peanuts a try.
Raw, unsalted peanuts for stir fries, please!
Cardinal Stir Fry Rule No. 2: Chicken breasts are the devil!
Okay, I’ll try not to go off on a rant here, but, I’ve got a little something to say about chicken, and I’ll try to keep it short this time. As far as chicken for stir fries goes, I’ve got two words for you: thigh meat! When most people today think of chicken, they think of one thing: boneless, skinless chicken breast: a sad, dry, flavorless piece of meat. But we, being quality conscious of course, know better and use thigh meat instead! Not only is thigh meat more flavorful, it’s also more tender and more juicy than breast meat – not to mention far less likely to overcook and dry out from the blasts of heavy heat the wok provides. If thigh meat is an option, grab it. And while you’re busy actually listening to what I have to say: if free-range and/or organic chicken is an option, grab that, too. You’ll thank me once you have tender, juicy, flavorful chicken rather than the gummy, overcooked breast bites you’re used to.
Got that? Awesome, lets move on to the slightly less familiar aspects of the Kung Pao Chicken show!
Bringing the heat to Kung Pao Chicken: Red Hot Chili Peppers
An important flavor element – and the perhaps most defining visual element – of Kung Pao Chicken is chilies – dried, whole red chilies This classic dish calls for chili peppers, and it calls for a lot of them. They’re generally used whole and in abundance, flash fried in smoking hot oil at the beginning of the cooking process to lend flavor and heat to the wok and the dish, then tossed with the other ingredients before plating for an impressive albeit slightly intimidating presentation as the one seen at the top of this recipe. Don’t worry, though, you’re not supposed to eat the peppers – they’re simply included for their warm, smoky flavor and visual appeal.
If you’re thinking you might as well use dried chili powder for this recipe, you would be sort of technically right but would also cheat yourself of an important visual element as well as the nice subtlety of flavors achieved by using whole dried chilies rather than ground. The super hot oil will essentially crisp and partially char the dried peppers, lending a certain smoky funk to the dish. If powdered chili were substituted they might easily scorch and burn, making the dish taste burned and bitter. In short: Do consider whole, dried chilies for your Kung Pao adventures. But what kind of chilies? That IS the question.
Don’t worry if you can’t find Facing Heaven Peppers or other obscure varieties, use what you can find and enjoy, I use these Thai peppers and they work just fine.
Chilies of choice for Kung Pao Chicken include traditional Sichuan varieties such as Facing Heaven Peppers or Seven Star peppers. Since few of us have ever heard of these varieties let alone have any clue as to where to get them, I’d suggest you use any not too hot dried variety. But exercise caution here as dried chilies range from absolutely harmless to painfully hot. Ask the clerk or an expert if you’re not sure what you’re doing and always remember that smaller is generally hotter. Avoid anything that says Piri Piri or Bird’s Eye Chilies unless you really like things hot. Even if you do, consider saving them for some other application. You want a bit of heat and smokiness to your Kung Pao Chicken, but you don’t want it mind-numbingly hot!
Kung Pao Chicken Secrets: Sichuan Pepper – My Mouth’s Become Comfortably Numb
That is, however, not to say that Kung Pao Chicken is not a numbing dish. Actually, in its truest form the dish is supposed to numb the mouth, I kid you not! But the numbing sensation of Kung Pao Chicken comes not from chilies, it comes courtesy of today’s mystery ingredient: a strange, little spice known as Sichuan Pepper, one of the world’s stranger spices that, despite bearing the name pepper, actually have very little in common with the black pepper that we all know and love.
Unlike black pepper, a berry from the Piper Nigrum plant, Sichuan Pepper, or Chinese Coriander as they’re also sometimes called, are procured from grinding the husk surrounding the seeds of the Zanthoxylum genus, a member of the citrus family, essentially making the oddly named Sichuan pepper closer related to lemons than to peppers. This probably goes to explain why this “pepper” unlike its namesake spices are not hot, but rather floral and lemony in aroma yet with a distinct pungency… and a rather dumbfounding and unique ability to create a peculiar, tingling, numbing of the mouth when ingested.
The combination of floral, exotic, citrusy notes and a mouth numbing tingling sensation comparable to a feeling somewhere between consuming a carbonated drink and suffering a very mild electric shock is… Unfamiliar… to say the least, but strangely not unpleasant. It also really helps set the stage for hot spices and bold flavors which probably explains this strange, numbing spice inclusion as a key ingredient in Kung Pao Chicken. Real Kung Pao Chicken, that is.
Until quite recently, many western versions lacked this signature numbing flavor as America up until 2005 maintained a ban on the import of Sichuan Pepper. Thankfully, though, we can now all enjoy Kung Pao Chicken as it was meant to be. However, unless you live in Chinatown or near a really well stocked Asian market, you may have trouble sourcing Sichuan Pepper. But fear not, the curious spice is readily available online and well worth seeking for a more authentic kick. If they seem a little pricey, don’t worry, even if some traditional recipes call for handfuls of Sichuan pepper, a little really goes a long way and we’ll make do with about a teaspoon in our home version. We do, after all, not want to completely mellow out our other ingredients, of which there are a few, some of them stranger than others.
Kung Pao Chicken – Special ingredient round-up
Alright, Sichuan pepper is probably the single weirdest ingredient in our roundup today. But to make Kung Pao Chicken, more specifically the marinade and the sauce, the most important parts of the dish, we still need an array of sauces, condiments and oils that may not be too familiar to the average Northern European or American.
Ingredients for Kung Pao Chicken, some more recognizable than others…
While seemingly strange, these key ingredients blend to give Kung Pao Chicken it’s perfect mix of savory, sweet, salty, sour and umami notes and should be available at a really well-stocked supermarket or, failing that, your friendly neighborhood Asian market:
Don’t be afraid to stock up! If you’re only just getting started in the field of Chinese or Asian cooking, these ingredients may seem a little strange and intimidating. Most of them are widely used in Asian dishes, though, and you’ll soon find yourself using and experimenting with them in a myriad of ways. So, while the initial investment may be a little steep, don’t be afraid to stock up. You’ll be making good use of them soon enough.
Light Soy Sauce: Light Soy Sauce is a really odd name for something that is essentially black in appearance, but in this case, the name applies mainly to the taste. Light soy sauce is pretty much what most of us think of as, well, just soy sauce. A salty, fermented and aged umami-laden substance made from soy beans which adds saltiness and a uniquely Chinese touch to many dishes either as a cooking ingredient or a condiment.
In Kung Pao Chicken, light soy sauce is the main ingredient of both the marinade and the sauce. It provides most of the saltiness, some color and deeper layers of fermented umami notes to the dish.
Dark Soy Sauce: Dark soy sauce is a lot like light soy sauce – only it’s been aged longer and has had a shot or two of caramel or molasses added to create a darker, thicker, stickier sauce. Dark soy sauce is usually added to dishes during the cooking process and rarely ever used as a condiment or dipping sauce. In terms of flavor, dark soy sauce provides deep, intense caramelized notes and is usually used sparingly to add color, depth and intensity.
In Kung Pao Chicken, dark soy sauce is used in both the marinade and sauce. It provides extra depth, more color and a complex sweetness to the dish. It also thoroughly enhances browning of the chicken for a deeper, sweet caramelized note.
Roasted Sesame Oil: Roasted sesame oil is made from, you guessed it, roasted sesame seeds. Roasted sesame oil is golden brown in color and intensely nutty, smoky and roasted in aroma. It adds unbelievable depth to many noodle dishes, but should also be used sparingly as it will easily overpower many other flavor notes. Often a few drops do the trick, in the case of this recipe, a half teaspoon in the sauce is more than enough for a pound of chicken.
In Kung Pao Chicken, roasted sesame oil provides certain roundedness and an underlying roasted and smoky aroma that you probably wouldn’t notice unless it wasn’t there.
Shaoxing Wine: You’ll find many Chinese recipes calling for Shaoxing Wine; a form of fermented Chinese rice wine, dark amber in color and often used in cooking. It is quite similar to regular, clear rice wine but offers more complexity and depth. If you’re unable to get Shaoxing wine, “regular” rice wine will do the trick, even if the flavor profile will not be nearly as deep and complex as if you were to use the real stuff. The point here is, you shouldn’t let the lack of Shaoxing wine keep you from giving this classic a spin in your wok. In a pinch, you can even substitute dry sherry.
As far as Kung Pao Chicken is concerned, the Shaoxing Wine is used in the marinade to provide warmth, complexity and subtly sweet layers of flavor that, again, you wouldn’t really notice unless they were missing.
Rice wine vinegar: As the name might suggest, rice wine vinegar is made from rice wine – in much the same way that white wine vinegar is made from white wine. Rice wine vinegar has the familiar vinegary bite that we know and love but is a little sweeter (okay, in some cases a lot sweeter) and less pungent than regular white wine vinegar. It’s a typical Asian ingredient in that way: what it lacks in immediate pungency and bite, it more than makes up for in roundedness and harmony.
In our Kung Pao Chicken, the vinegar adds tanginess and a much needed twang that helps counterbalance and boost other flavors. Many recipes call for Chinese black vinegar rather than rice wine vinegar, but I haven’t been able to find said vinegar. Rice wine vinegar, in turn, does the trick for me.
And there you go, we’ve covered the very basics and some not so very basic ingredients of Kung Pao Chicken, from here onwards, things are pretty simple. Add a bit of aromatics in the shape of ginger and garlic, a little chicken stock and some corn starch to the sauce to thicken things up and you’ve basically got Kung Pao Chicken. From there on, it’s all a matter of opinion.
Keeping It Real: Authentic vs Westernized Kung Pao Chicken
Opinions on allowed ingredients in Kung Pao Chicken differ, you see. Religiously. Several people in the know suggest the “real” authentic version of Kung Pao Chicken is but a pungent and fiery concoction cooked up using simply the ingredients stated above, then seasoned with anywhere from a tablespoon to a couple of handfuls of Sichuan peppercorns and quite a few chilies to boot.
It is argued in turn that westernised versions usually cut down on the spice and up the sweetness to better suit Western palates. It is also said that Western versions are more inclined to include more vegetables. Indeed, my own experiences show that Western versions often invite vegetables such as bell peppers, leek, white onion, celery and others to the party. Something fellow bloggers argue would rarely happen in mainland China where the dish is mainly about the chicken and the spice.
How do I take my Kung Pao Chicken? Well, I was obviously raised on Western versions, but even so, I like playing by the book and respecting the roots of any given dish. In all honesty, this recipe falls somewhere in-between the two as it uses all major authentic ingredients and is somewhat spicy in nature. Yet it cuts back considerably on the numbing Sichuan peppers while, on the other hand, adding an ingredient most unheard of by Kung Pao purists: red bell peppers!
Kung Pao Chicken Johan Style – Do my red peppers make me look bad?
Purists will argue that bell peppers interfere with the basic flavor profile and messes up the appearance, but hell, I was raised on red bell peppers as a Kung Pao ingredient, I think they look pretty and I honestly feel that as long as you use red peppers and stay away from the grassy and bitter green bell peppers or the sometimes funky yellow ones, the bell pepper flavor suits the dish just fine.
The choice is yours, dear reader. If you want to take the authentic route, leave out the bell peppers in my recipe. If on the other hand, you’re feeling adventurous, you could go ahead and spice it up a bit by adding other vegetables along with the bell peppers. Heck, if you’re one of those people who enjoy finding new ways of dealing with leftovers, a very non-traditional Kung Pao Chicken would be a great way of using up those scraps and pieces.
I’ll leave the choice to you and get to the recipe and the cooking process!
If you’re a loyal reader, you may remember that I’ve stated in other posts (most famously my tome on Pad Thai) that the only real secrets to a successful stir fry is preparation, speed and organization. Stir fries happen fast and once you’ve started, there’s no turning back. Thus, to execute a stir fry successfully, we must be prepared.
Before even getting the wok ready, make sure that you’ve rinsed, cleaned and chopped everything that needs chopping. Have anything that needs weighing or dosing all dosed out and make sure that you have all ingredients organized and accounted for. As far as sauces or liquid ingredients go, have everything measured out and mixed.
Then, and only then, do you put your wok or cast iron pan over high heat and get it nice and blazing hot. Now, this is your point of no return. Add the oil and get ready to move, and make sure you move in the correct order! Think of your wok as a canvas onto which you paint layers of flavor; the order in which you add the ingredients actually do matter as every ingredient adds flavor to the wok, the cooking oil and hence the dish itself.
In the case of Kung Pao Chicken we first fry the peanuts in the oil, then the chilies, we remove both and then fry the rest of the ingredients. Both of these preliminary steps serve to add flavor to the oil that in turn flavors the rest of the dish more deeply. You may think this info trivial, but it’s this attention to detail that separates a stellar stir fry from a really good stir fry… And we all prefer stellar to good, right?
Oh, and one last thing… Once your stir fry is done, be ready to plate up and serve – immediately. Stir fries are best served piping hot straight from the wok! If you have guests, make sure everyone’s accounted for (and possibly immobilized with a glass of wine) before starting the stir frying process. Don’t worry, you’ll have fed them sooner than you think.
Kung Pao Chicken - Homemade Gourmet Takeaway
- 500 grams chicken thighs cut into chunks
- 8-10 dried red chilies
- 50 grams unsalted peanuts
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 inch ginger
- 3 spring onions
- 1 large red bell pepper
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Rice Wine
- 3 grinds of black pepper
- 1 tablespoon Chinese black vinegar can substitute rice wine vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon roasted sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons flavorful chicken stock
- 2 teaspoons cane sugar
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon corn starch
- Mix all ingredients for marinade and pour over chicken chunks, toss thoroughly to coat.
- Let marinate at room temperature for 20-30 minutes while you prep the rest of the ingredients.
- Combine all ingredients for the sauce in a suitable bowl and stir vigorously to combine.
- Core the bell pepper and cut into large chunks, roughly 1 x 1 centimeter.
- Chop the whites of the spring onions finely, cut the greens into roughly half centimeter strips.
- Grate ginger finely on a microplane grater.
- Mince garlic finely.
Fry it up:
- Heat a wok or large cast iron skillet over medium heat.
- Add two tablespoons of peanut or sunflower oil.
- Add peanuts and fry for about 2 minutes tossing constantly. Be careful as they will burn quite easily.
- Remove the peanuts from the wok with a slotted spoon, keeping as much of the oil in the wok as you can.
- Turn heat to high and add the dried chilies.
- Stir fry chilies for about a minute, making sure to keep them moving constantly. Chilies may scorch a little during the process, this is okay as it adds an enjoyable scorched note to the dish.
- After about a minute, remove the chilies from the pot using a slotted spoon, taking care again to reserve the now very flavorful oil in the wok.
- Now add the chicken and stir fry for a few minutes on high heat, until well caramelized.
- Remove chicken from wok using slotted spoon, add a little more oil if needed and turn heat down to medium.
- Add bell pepper and stir fry for a minute, keeping them moving as always.
- Add spring onion whites and fry for another minute.
- Add garlic and ginger and fry for 3o seconds.
- Add chicken, chilies and peanuts back into the pot.
- Stir thoroughly to combine.
- Add the sauce along with any reserved marinade and stir vigorously to combine.
- Fry for about a minute until heated through and sauce has slightly thickened.
- Remove wok from the heat and serve immediately over rice.
Homemade Kung Pao Chicken – The Verdict
So, Johan, those were mighty many words about chicken… Well, then, how was it? Well… Immediately upon tasting this dish, it should become clear why it has become such a great hit, not only with the original Kung Pao, Ding Baozhen, but with millions around the world:
The succulent tenderness of the chicken is beautifully offset by the slight crunch and fattiness of the peanuts. The round, nutty flavors of the peanuts and the sesame oil are boldly counterbalanced by the smoky, fiery notes of the chilies while the sugar and wine add a pronounced sweetness that is, in turn, kept in check by the vinegar. The marinade used on the meat thoroughly enhances browning and caramelization, enhancing the natural sweet, meaty flavors of the chicken meat while the chicken stock and the soy sauce, top off the meatiness, adding an explosion of saltiness and deep, powerful, fermented umami depth. It’s almost too much, really, but then the Sichuan peppers kick in to sort of numb things down a bit and make everything seem, well, just perfect. As Kung Pao should be.
Indeed, Kung Pao Chicken should be bursting with umami and aromatic spices and it should be the perfect combination between hot, salty, savory, sweet and sour. However, my perfect combination is not necessarily your perfect combination. So take this recipe as a reasonable starting point, cook it up and do what you would do with any other dish. Give it a taste! Not quite right? Give it a shot of soy if you miss salt or umami, add an extra dash of vinegar for acidity and complexity, add a little chili powder or Sichuan pepper for heat or pungency. Make note of your changes and remember them for next time around. That’s cooking in a nutshell!