Kung Pao chicken is a commonly found dish in Chinese restaurants around the world, including China. On the colorful, budget Silk Road Tour I took last year, among the 20 of us on the trip, it was the most commonly ordered item at our group dinners.
This was not a high-end tour across China. We ended up eating this dish at a small gangster cafe in Beijing, a Muslim Quarter family restaurant in Xian and at urban fast-food joints in Urumqi. Spicy, exposing its Sichuan heritage, and slightly sweet, it packs a lot of flavor.
Like many popular Chinese recipes, it comes with stories and puns. Like homophones in English, many Chinese words sound alike. In this case, Kung Pao is reputed to be named from the late 19th century Qing Dynasty Sichuan governor, Ding Baozhen. His title was Gongbao, or Palace Guardian, hence, a similar-sounding word, Kung Pao. Also, the Chinese character for his last name, Ding, can mean “small cube,” like the size of the chicken chunks.
For a short period of time during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966-1976, in the interest of promoting communism by getting rid of references to the tyrannical dynastic history of the past, the dish was renamed Spicy Chicken, only to return to its former name under reforms in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping.
Served with rice, this simple recipe makes enough for two people. It’s all over the web and is originally attributed to Chef Wei Zhong Xin, the executive chef of Nine Dragons, a Chinese restaurant at the Epcot Center, part of the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.
Kung Pao Chicken
3/4 pounds boneless chicken breast or thighs
1 egg, beaten
2 teaspoons cornstarch
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
1 cup skinned peanuts
4 tablespoons peanut oil, divided
3 green onions, cut into ½-inch pieces
1/3 cup peeled and ¼-inch diced carrots
1/3 cup sliced celery
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 1/2 tablespoons water
3 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon sherry or mirin
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup chicken stock
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
Cut the chicken meat into bite-sized cubes. In a medium bowl, combine the egg, 2 teaspoons cornstarch, salt and white pepper to taste. Add the chicken, cover and set aside to marinate for 30 minutes.
Fry peanuts in 1 tablespoon of oil until golden and crunchy. Set aside. Prepare green onions, ginger, garlic, celery and carrots.
For the sauce, in a small bowl dissolve 3 teaspoons cornstarch in 1½ tablespoons of water. Then add sherry, soy sauce, sugar, chicken stock, and white vinegar. Mix well.
Heat a wok or frying pan over high heat. When the pan is hot, add 2 tablespoons of oil and tilt pan to distribute. When the oil is hot and shiny, add chicken and stir fry until nearly tender. Remove chicken from the pan and set aside. Remove wok or frying pan from the heat and using a paper towel, wipe it dry.
Return wok to high heat and add 1 tablespoon oil. When the oil is hot, add green onions, carrots and celery and stir fry for one minute. Add chili flakes, ginger, and garlic and stir fry for 1 minute more. Add chicken and stir fry for 30 seconds. Then add the cornstarch and soy sauce mixture. Stir fry until sauce thickens. Stir in fried peanuts and stir fry until chicken is fully cooked. Serve immediately with rice.