Unlike many Chinese-American favorites, which were invented by resourceful Chinese immigrants, Kung Pao Chicken (宫保雞丁) is a Sichuan classic that can be enjoyed to this day in China. If you’re expecting the mild vegetable and chicken stir-fry suspended in a sweet gravy that you’d get in the US, you may be in for a surprise when a plate with equal parts chili peppers and chicken shows up.
The dish may be pronounced more like gōng bǎo in China, but it certainly packs more pow than the Chinese-American counterpart thanks to the copious addition of chili peppers. Face-meltingly spicy, the flames are both fanned or tamed by the handfuls of tongue-numbing huā jiāo (Sichuan Pepper) in the original.
I know it’s neither here nor there, but personally, I’m not a fan of the candy-sweet sauce in the Chinese-American version, and the Sichuan original is a little more heat than I can handle. That’s why my version of Kung Pao Chicken comes in between the two with a piquant sauce that’s redolent of citrusy huā jiāo glazing a colorful medley of chicken, bell peppers and oil roasted peanuts.
To infuse as much flavor into the chicken as possible, I like to marinate it in a combination of Chinese rice wine and potato starch. As meat cooks, the proteins shrink, forcing out the liquid contained within the meat. By thickening the escaping liquids, the potato starch helps lock the moisture in the chicken so it doesn’t dry out as it cooks.
For the sauce, I use a combination of earthy black vinegar, savory soy sauce, spicy dòubànjiàng and tongue-tingling huā jiāo. The latter two ingredients create the málà (numbing/spicy) taste that’s a trademark of Sichuan cuisine and the sublimely pungent sauce plays well with the dark, nutty peanuts and umami-packed chicken.
As with any stir-fry, the key is to maintain a very high heat, which is why it’s important to use a pan with enough surface area so that incoming ingredients doesn’t cool it off too much. This is also why it’s crucial that you have all your prep-work done ahead of time and the ingredients close at hand, so things don’t burn while you’re hunting for something.
- Whisk the marinade ingredients together and add the chicken, stirring to combine. Marinate for at least 30 minutes.
- Add the sauce ingredients into a small bowl and whisk to combine.
- Heat a wok or large saute pan, until hot and then add the oil along with the chilies and peanuts. Stir-fry until the chilies are fragrant, but be careful not to burn them. Transfer the chilies to a plate and then continue to stir-fry the peanuts until they start to brown. Transfer the peanuts to a plate, leaving as much oil the pan as possible.
- Add the ginger and garlic to the pan and then add the marinated chicken in a single layer. Leave the chicken undisturbed until it starts to brown.
- Add the red and green bell peppers and then stir-fry until the chicken is mostly cooked.
- Add the sauce and return the peanuts and chili peppers to the pan. Continue stir frying until the sauce thickens and evenly coats the chicken and vegetables.
- Garnish with the scallions and serve.