Ready to transform your notion of what Hunan Chicken can be? This Chinese-American classic marries traditional Hunan cuisine's robust, spicy zing with the approachable, family-friendly essence of your favorite Chinese take-out restaurant. With succulent chicken thighs marinated with Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, and a kiss of ginger. These tender morsels sizzle and mingle with an ensemble of shiitake mushrooms, vibrant red and green peppers, and aromatic garlic. A sumptuous sauce, redolent with oyster sauce and the fermented depth of doubanjiang, cloaks every piece, ensuring each bite is a crescendo of flavor. A final splash of rice vinegar brightens this vivid tapestry, invigorating the dish with a tangy exuberance inspired by the tastes of Hunan.
What is Hunan Chicken?
Although the name may suggest this dish came from the Hunan province of China, this dish is a Chinese-American creation. That said, it does draw inspiration from the bold, spicy, and aromatic profile of Hunanese cuisine. In traditional Hunan cooking, you'll find a fearless use of chilies, garlic, and scallions. Hunan Chicken was likely based on dishes like Dry-Wok Chicken (干锅鸡) and Stir-Fried Chicken with Black Bean & Chili Peppers (豆豉辣椒炒鸡).
In a typical Chinese-American version, boneless chicken is stir-fried with vegetables like broccoli and zucchini and a sweet, spicy, and tangy sauce. In my version, I've built a recipe that balances the Hunan Chicken you get at a local Chinese take-out joint with an homage to the flavors and textures that define the cuisine of Hunan Province.
Why This Recipe Works?
- Marinating the chicken ensures it's seasoned all the way through, and the ginger in the marinade contains a proteolytic enzyme called zingibain that tenderizes the meat.
- Coating the chicken with potato starch before cooking helps the chicken retain its juices, ensuring it turns out plump and juicy. It also helps the sauce to adhere to the meat.
- Because the acidity of vinegar will evaporate if cooked, I add a splash of rice vinegar at the end to give the dish a touch of brightness.
- Like any stir-fry, most of the time required is in the prep because things go quick once you start cooking.
- Chicken: I like using skin-on boneless chicken thighs for stir-fries because they remain juicy and flavorful, even with the high heat of stir-frying. Skinless chicken breasts can be substituted for a leaner option, but they won't be quite as juicy.
- Shaoxing wine: This brings an earthy caramel flavor to the dish. The alcohol burns off while cooking, so it's mainly there for flavor and umami. You can substitute dry sherry or sake if you can't find it.
- Soy sauce: This is the main season for the chicken, infusing the meat with salt and umami. The salt also helps the chicken hold onto its juices better (similar to how a brine works for roast chicken). If you want to go gluten-free, substitute in Tamari.
- Ginger: Grated ginger not only adds zing and spice but also contains natural proteolytic enzymes that tenderize the meat.
- Potato starch: Coating the chicken with starch helps the meat retain moisture and creates a surface for the sauce to adhere to. I also add a small amount into the sauce to help thicken it without making it goopy. I like the texture of potato starch the best due to its relatively large granule size and amylose/amylopectin balance, but other types of starch, such as cornstarch or tapioca starch, will work.
- Chicken stock: Lays the flavorful foundation for our sauce, making it rich and robust; it's best to use a rich homemade chicken stock, but a canned or jarred low sodium chicken broth will work in a pinch, and you could also substitute any flavorful liquid such as mushroom stock or vegetable broth.
- Oyster sauce: This is the primary seasoning for my Hunan Chicken Sauce. It delivers a marvelous balance of salt, sweet, and umami, making the sauce simpler than sourcing several separate ingredients. When shopping for oyster sauce, look for one that contains oysters (or oyster extract) as one of the main ingredients. My favorite brand is MegaChef.
- Doubanjiang: This is a salty, spicy, fermented broad bean and chili paste that adds the signature kick to this dish. You can substitute other types of chili paste, such as sambal oelek. This is also where you can adjust the spice level of this dish to suit your tastes.
- Garlic: Garlic is used extensively in Hunan cuisine, bringing a robust aromatic depth to this dish. I like to slice it so you end up with a contrast of flavors when you have a sliver of garlic in your bite.
- Dried chili peppers: Chili peppers are another defining characteristic of Hunanese cuisine, and they add a fiery kick to this stir-fry. Adjust the amount you add depending on how spicy you like things, and you can also substitute in fresh red chilies or chili flakes.
- Shiitake mushrooms: Earthy and umami-rich, shiitake mushrooms contribute a second meaty texture. Maitake or cremini mushrooms could also work here.
- Red and green peppers: These add color, sweetness, and a fresh crunch to the dish. I used red bell peppers and mild green chili peppers, but if you want something spicier, try going with peppers with a bit more heat. You could also add other veggies here, like broccoli, cauliflower, celery, or carrots. Another options is to add nuts like peanuts or cashews for a little extra crunch.
- Scallions: Green onions add a fresh, oniony brightness and mild sweetness to round out the dish while serving as a vibrant garnish.
- Rice vinegar: Rice wine vinegar brings a finishing touch for brightness and balance to the savory, sweet, and spicy tastes. I like adding it at the end because the acetic acid that makes vinegar tangy evaporates when cooked too long. Apple cider vinegar or anything with a mild and fruity acidity will work here.
How to Make Hunan Chicken
The first thing you want to do is marinate the chicken. You could even do this in the morning so it's ready to go by dinner time. Start by cutting the chicken thighs into bite-sized pieces and placing them in a bowl with Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, and freshly grated ginger. Give everything a good mix, and let this marinate while you prep the rest of your ingredients. This seasons the chicken and changes the protein structure, rendering it more tender and juicy.
To make the Hunan Sauce, whisk together chicken stock, oyster sauce, doubanjiang, and potato starch in a small bowl. Potato starch will thicken the sauce, allowing it to cling to your ingredients instead of pooling at the bottom of your dish.
Now comes the mise en place for the stir-fry. Preparing all the ingredients ahead of time is crucial because, in stir-fry cooking, things move swiftly. Slice your garlic; clean, trim, and quarter the shiitake mushrooms; and cut the red and green peppers into squares. Slice the scallions diagonally to maximize their surface area while cutting through their fibers.
Once your prep is done, it's time to make our Hunan-style chicken stir-fry. Add the remaining potato starch to your marinated chicken, stirring well to coat each piece evenly. This coating serves a dual purpose: it helps lock in the chicken's natural juices and provides a surface for our sauce to adhere to.
Heat a large skillet or frying pan over medium-high heat. Western stoves weren't engineered to heat a round wok, so unless you have a wok burner on your stove, it's better to use a large frying pan or skillet. The key is to have a lot of surface area, which will give you more thermal mass, preventing the pan from cooling down too much as you add ingredients to the pan.
Add vegetable oil and dried chili peppers; when they stop sizzling, add the chicken. Spread it out with the skin side down and let it cook undisturbed for about a minute and a half or until it starts to brown on the bottom.
Next, flip the chicken pieces over and add the shiitake mushrooms around them. Let this brown for another minute and a half.
Add the sliced garlic and start stir-frying the ingredients until the mushrooms are nearly cooked through. Add the red and green peppers and stir-fry until they're cooked yet still vibrant—about 2 minutes should do it.
Finally, give your Hunan Chicken Sauce a quick stir to re-homogenize any settled starch. Pour the sauce over the chicken and veggies and toss everything to combine. Add in the sliced scallions and give another toss to distribute them. To finish this weeknight stir-fry, drizzle on the rice vinegar for a bright, tangy kick that will take your Hunan Chicken to the next level.
Serve it With
To replicate the Chinese takeout experience, I like serving this Hunan Chicken recipe family style with other Chinese-American dishes with complementary or contrasting tastes and textures. Kick off your Chinese feast with my Smashed Cucumber Salad, a spicy and refreshing delight that's a productive way to unleash any pent-up frustration. Next, a tangy and spicy bowl of Hot and Sour Soup previews some of the tastes of our star dish. For the main course, I like having a sweet and sour element, and both Orange Chicken and Sweet and Sour Pork are Chinese-American classics that contrast beautifully with the fiery Hunan Chicken. Finally, for something more savory, Broccoli Beef or Chicken Chow Mein make for a great accompaniment.
- 430 grams boneless skin-on chicken thighs
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 10 grams ginger (grated)
- 2 tablespoons potato starch
For Hunan Chicken Sauce
- ⅓ cup chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 1 ½ tablespoons doubanjiang
- ½ teaspoon potato starch
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 12 grams garlic (thinly sliced)
- 4 dried chili peppers
- 100 grams shiitake mushrooms (cleaned, trimmed, & quartered)
- 100 grams red pepper (cored & cut into squares)
- 100 grams mild green pepper (cored & cut into squares)
- 50 grams scallions (sliced diagonally)
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- Cut 430 grams boneless skin-on chicken thighs into bite-sized pieces and add it to a bowl with 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, and 10 grams ginger. Mix and let the chicken marinate while you prepare the other ingredients.
- Make the Hunan Chicken Sauce by whisking together ⅓ cup chicken stock, 2 tablespoons oyster sauce, 1 ½ tablespoons doubanjiang, and ½ teaspoon potato starch
- Prepare all of the ingredients for the stir-fry by measuring them out and cutting them according to the ingredient notes above.
- When you're ready to make the stir-fry, add 2 tablespoons potato starch to the marinated chicken and mix it in to coat the chicken evenly. It should all look wet.
- Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and 4 dried chili peppers and fry them in the oil until they stop sizzling.
- Add the marinated chicken and spread the pieces out evenly around the pan in a single layer with the skin side down. Fry undisturbed until the chicken starts browning on one side (~ 1 ½ minutes).
- Flip the chicken over and add 100 grams shiitake mushrooms in the spaces around the chicken (~1 minute).
- When the chicken is browned on the second side, add 12 grams garlic and start stir-frying the mixture until the mushrooms are mostly cooked through (~1 minute).
- Add 100 grams red pepper and 100 grams mild green pepper and continue stir-frying until the peppers are cooked but still vibrant in color (~2 minutes).
- Stir the sauce to redistribute the starch settled at the bottom of the bowl and pour it over the Hunan Chicken.
- Add 50 grams scallions and toss together to glaze everything with the sauce.
- Finish the Hunan style chicken by drizzling over 1 tablespoon rice vinegar and tossing to distribute evenly.