Kung pao chicken is a popular Chinese dish that is found at every Chinese restaurant all over the world. Although the recipe originated from the Sichuan province in China, it is one of the staple dishes of Americanised Chinese restaurants.
Although there may be slight variations in the seasoning of different regions, the basic components are chicken cubes, cashew nuts and dried red chillies smothered in a sweet and spicy dark gravy.
If you’ve ever had kung pao chicken in the US or any Westernised Chinese restaurant, then you may have encountered bell pepper, carrots, and orange juice in the dish. It’s just among the many variations that this dish has evolved through time and distance. Just as much as it has evolved locally with variations that substitute chicken with pork, fish, shrimp or frog.
The dish is believed to be named after Ding Baozhen, the governor of Sichuan Province during the late Qing Dynasty, and he was one of the gongbao, or kung pao, literally palace guardian. Chicken meat for this dish is often cut into small cubes, or gai ding, which is also a play of words on the surname Ding.
The original kung pao chicken recipe calls for Sichuan peppercorns, although it doesn’t have the numbing mala flavour profile that these peppers usually present. The trace amount that is flash-fried at the beginning of this dish is just enough to add fragrance to the oil without extruding all its numbing qualities.
It is common to find peanuts in kung pao chicken instead of cashew nuts, and they are both interchangeable in this dish. Although I prefer to toast my nuts in a dry wok, purists will say that the nuts should be fried in the oil before other ingredients are added. Whichever method you choose, I would recommend that the nuts be removed from the wok before the other ingredients are cooked, then returned to the dish just before serving to retain its crunchiness.
As in all Chinese dishes, properly prepared kung pao chicken has to balance the piquancy of the pepper spices with sugar, soy sauce and vinegar in the final gravy seasoning.
This recipe first appeared in The Star Online > Food
- 2 tbsp cooking oil
- ½ cup cashew nuts
- 10 dried chillies, cut into 2cm lengths
- 1½ tsp sichuan peppercorns
- 1 knob ginger, sliced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 5 stalks scallions, diced and separated into whites and greens
- 1 red chilli
- ½ bulb red onion, cut into chunks
- 400g chicken
- ½ tsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp soy sauce
- 1 tsp Shaoxing wine
- Gravy seasoning
- 2 tsp cornstarch
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1½ tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tsp Chinese black vinegar
- 1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
- 3 tbsp sugar
- ½ tsp sesame oil
- ½ cup water
- Marinate chicken with marinade ingredients for 10-20 minutes.
- Mix gravy ingredients in a small bowl until cornstarch is dissolved.
- Heat empty wok over medium heat. Add cashew nuts and toast until light golden. Remove cashews.
- Heat oil in wok over high heat. Add dried chillies and sichuan peppercorns and temper until oil gets fragrant.
- Add ginger and garlic and sauté 30 seconds until fragrant.
- Add chicken, cook until meat turns white, then add the scallion whites and red onion. Toss until chicken is cooked through, about 2 minutes.
- Add gravy and bring to a simmer, until the sauce has reduced into a thick syrup.
- Just before dishing out, stir in red chillies, toasted cashew nuts and scallion greens.
- Serve immediately with steamed rice.