Kung pao chicken, or gong bao, has an interesting, if highly contested, political backstory. In at least one account, it is named after a 19th-century governor-general of Sichuan province, who suffered from dentition so bad that he could eat only small, boneless pieces of meat. The dish was forcibly renamed during the Cultural Revolution, when such imperial functionaries were very old-fashioned, Fried Chicken Cubes or Seared Chili Chicken Cubes, both accurate if unromantic descriptions.
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Despite its somewhat scary, chili-flecked appearance, it’s a spicy but not particularly spicy dish. Instead, the main flavor is that of Sichuan peppercorns and scallions, all tied together with a subtly sweet and sour sauce. Like many stir-fry dishes, it’s easiest to make in small batches; in fact, it’s perfect for dining alone.
Most recipes call for chicken breast, a cut I have little time for in general. But, having tried thighs in recipes by Andrew Wong and Harry Eastwood, I have to grudgingly admit that they are not ideal for the wok hobbyist, because darker meat takes longer to cook. This means that if you’re not operating at professional temperatures—hot enough to remove your brows—you can leave the outside dry. Keep the cubes small for this reason.
Harry Eastwood’s Kung Pao Chicken – Use lots of scallions or even a few leeks. Thumbnail Photos: Felicity Cloake.
Interestingly, Chin and Choo’s Chinese Takeaway Bible, the book based on the popular YouTube channel dedicated to divulging the secrets of takeout classics, begins with “pre-cooked chicken.” This is meant to mimic the pre-cooked meat that many restaurants apparently use (although it seems like it will never be as bland as 60-80% meat in products available in catering quantities. Don’t worry: the rest is just water and salt, before that nothing sinister). This is boneless brisket poached at 80°C for 30 to 40 minutes, then cooled and sliced; ideal if you want to get ahead, although it lacks the juiciness of the stir-fries.
Most recipes marinate raw meat briefly before cooking, usually in a mixture of starch and water seasoned with soy sauce and rice wine, the classic “velveting” technique that helps form a protective barrier between the chicken and the wok hot to keep it, well, velvety soft.
Tony Tan’s kung pao sauce is thickened with water or broth.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s masterpiece, The Food of Sichuan, informs me that the sauce in this dish is known as li zhi wei, or “lychee-flavoured,” a milder version of sweet and sour made with a mixture of sugar, sugar sauces, soy and rice vinegar, thickened with cornmeal or potato and loosened with water (or chicken broth, as Tony Tan does in his book Hong Kong Food City). However, in such small quantities, I don’t think there’s much point in using stock, unless you have some on hand; the soy should give it enough flavorful oomph on its own. The same goes for Tan’s dash of sesame oil, which clashes with the actual nuts in my opinion. Feel free to add a touch, if you don’t agree.
Wong starts with a kung pao broth, seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilies, ginger, and garlic, as well as the usual sugar, vinegar, and soybeans, which are then reduced, rather than thickened. While it’s wonderfully fragrant and intense, outside of a Michelin-starred kitchen, it’s hard to justify 25 minutes of work, when most other sauces can be mixed in 25 seconds.
Andrew Wong’s kung pao chicken starts with a kung pao broth, seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilies, ginger, and garlic.
Another recipe intended for a professional kitchen is Chin and Choo’s, which starts with a takeout-style sweet and sour sauce that is “very different than the traditional version” as it’s made with malt vinegar, copious amounts of white sugar, and double- Orange pumpkin concentrate, boiled with ginger, garlic, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, orange slices and tomato puree. The results, which bring back many happy memories, are then mixed with spicy bean paste and dark soy sauce in the wok, and thickened with starch, as usual. In fact, it’s much sweeter than the others I’ve tried, but balanced by the green bell pepper and toasted walnuts, it’s not as unpleasant. (Plus, I now have a tub of sweet and sour sauce in the fridge for all my late-night needs.)
aromatics and vegetables
This dish calls for only two spices, and since they are its defining characteristic, substitutions are not acceptable. Dunlop explains that “sun-dried chilies are indispensable in Sichuan cuisine. [and] several varieties can be found in the markets of the region”. Look for examples “red and bright, fragrant and not overly pungent”; as she puts it, thanks to the growing popularity of Sichuan food abroad, many Chinese supermarkets now stock bags full of proper chilies, whether they’re “little, pointy” or plump “honeys.” -front” or “bullet” types. Just make sure they’re not the deafening Indian or Thai varieties (or reduce the amount accordingly).
Chin and Choo Effort: with bamboo shoots, green bell pepper, water chestnuts and pineapple.
Sichuan peppercorns are simpler: use whole berries (try one first – if it’s not tingling or sharp you’ll need to invest in a fresh packet) and, like Dunlop and Tan, use them to infuse the oil before cooking any another thing. . If you find whole fruits too intense, then you could grind them to distribute the flavor more evenly, as Eastwood reports a “very patient Chinese friend” in Beijing does.
Eastwood’s book Carnevale is also helpful on the subject of vegetables: “Scallions in Beijing were larger than ours in Europe and make up about half the plate,” he reports. “If you have small onions or want to increase the amount of vegetables, then add some thinly sliced leeks.”
Dunlop Fuchsia Kung Pao Chicken – Sun-dried chiles are a must.
Although Western versions are often quite meaty, the onions shouldn’t just be a garnish, and the same goes for the nuts, whether you go for the traditional peanuts or cashews from Dunlop and Chin and Choo (personally, I prefer the more flavorful). tasty). of the first), be generous. Although I’m usually lazy and buy them roasted so I can eat the rest of the packet the next day, for the best, crispiest results, fry anything you use raw, as both Eastwood and Chin and Choo recommend.
If you want to up the vegetable quota even more, note that Wong adds Chin and Choo celery and bamboo shoots, green bell pepper, water chestnuts, and pineapple, in addition to the obligatory garlic and ginger. All give the dish an interest in texture, if not the stamp of authenticity of the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cookery in Chengdu, where Dunlop was formed.
Eastwood garnishes his dish with cilantro, while Wong shows off his skills with air-dried chicken skin and a peanut mousse made with satay sauce, milk and soy lecithin. They are all very nice (well, I imagine the skin on the chicken is very nice, but your note that, “for the home cook, preparing this really is a huge waste of time and I would recommend spending your time making something a little more fun than drying the skin of the chicken”, rather discourages me from confirming it), but completely optional. Serve hot from the wok with steamed rice and maybe some vegetables on the side.
Perfect kung pao chicken
Felicity’s hybrid is the perfect kung pao chicken.
Homework 10 minutes
Cook 5 minutes
It serves 1
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast (about 150g)
1 teaspoon cornmeal or potato starch
1 teaspoon cold water
½ teaspoon light soy sauce
½ teaspoon Shaoxing rice wineor dry sherry
6 whole dried chilies
3 spring onions
2 garlic cloves
Fresh ginger 2 cm piece
1½ tablespoon of neutral oil
1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
30 g roasted peanuts or cashews
for the sauce
1 spoon of sugar
½ teaspoon dark soy sauce
¾ teaspoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chiang King vinegar
½ teaspoon cornmeal or potato starch mixed with 1 tablespoon of cold water
Cut the chicken into cubes of approximately 1 cm. In a bowl, mix the teaspoon of cornmeal with the teaspoon of water, to make a thick paste, then add the light soy sauce and rice wine. Add chicken and toss to coat.
Dice chicken and marinate in a 1:1 paste of cornmeal and water mixed with 1/2 teaspoon light soy sauce.
Cut the chiles in half lengthwise, then shake them and discard the seeds (if they are very hot, you may want to reduce the number of chiles). Cut the chives into pieces of approximately 1 cm and separate the white and green parts. Peel and thinly slice the garlic and ginger.
Assemble your sliced vegetables and spices, make your sauce, and start by frying the chili and peppercorns.
Mix all the ingredients for the sauce in a bowl and place near the stove, along with the chiles and peppercorns, chicken, garlic, ginger, whites of the scallions, and peanuts and scallion leaves.
Heat a wok, then add the oil, peppercorns, and chiles, and sauté until aromatic. Add the chicken to the wok and sauté until fully coloured, then add the garlic, ginger and spring onion whites and continue to sauté until the chicken is cooked through; be careful to keep everything moving so the garlic doesn’t burn
Add the chicken, then the garlic, ginger, and spring onion whites. Sauté until chicken is cooked through.
Whisk the sauce together, then pour it into the wok and let it bubble until thick enough to coat the chicken. Add the walnuts and chive leaves, mix everything together and eat immediately.
Pour in the sauce, reduce to cover the chicken, then finish by adding the walnuts and green onions.
Kung pao or gong bao – is this chicken dish a favorite and do you prefer it spicy and warm or fiery and feisty as it tends to be cooked outside of China? Have you tried it with tofu or fish, and what do you like to serve it with?