Want an exotic meal that’s simple to prep and quick to make that leaves a lasting impression? That’s kung pao chicken. Tender chicken, hot bird’s eye chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, and toasted peanuts star in a superbly savory sauce. It’s no wonder that kung pao is one of the world’s most popular Chinese delights.
Kitchen-to-table in under 20 minutes? With kung pao, that’s easily done. A little chopping, some hot-and-fast stir frying, and you’ll be relishing an absolute classic. This is a knockout as an ultra-speedy supper. But kung pao chicken has such a high wow-factor that it will also thrill a bigger, more formal gathering. For friends and family who rave over Chinese food, this one’s always going to be a hands-down winner.
Kung pao is so astonishingly good that it’s highly prized as an everyday dish, and as a super-special one. It’s been served to visiting American presidents at Chinese state banquets. And it’s an almost obligatory feature on the menus of down-to-earth Chinese restaurants and take-out joints around the globe.
The masterpiece from Sichuan
Landlocked in south-western China, the province of Sichuan has a very specific claim to culinary fame – it’s Sichuan peppercorns. They’re a defining feature of the region’s food and play a key role in the dish for which Sichuan is probably most famous – kung pao chicken.
Even though they’re tagged as peppercorns, these little reddish-brown berries, known as Sichuan peppercorns, are from trees of the citrus family. They aren’t related to peppers of the chili, black, white, or bell variety, but they’ve certainly got an appeal all of their own.
They’re noted for producing the tingly, slightly numbing sensation of a sharply fizzy soda. That’s combined with the spicy, salty-sweet taste of astringently tangy lime. Unusual? Very. Distinctive? Oh, yeah. Nothing else crams all those features into just one package.
And the really great thing about Sichuan peppercorns is that they adore being paired with chilies – especially hot ones. In our kung pao that means ten fresh red bird’s eye chilies (or Thai peppers). Some chunky-ish slices of those bird’s eyes are flash-fried to give them a darkly smoky char, others get added right at the end to bring in a more immediate hit of fruitier heat.
Now, that high sensation pairing of Sichuan peppercorns and fiery chilies goes incredibly well with the far more delicate taste of the chicken. The fact that the cubed chicken breast keeps all its mildly succulent flavors is definitely one of the reasons why kung pao is such an amazingly wonderful dish.
Another reason is that the layers of flavor just keep on coming. Here’s how that happens. Garlic and ginger root are simply meant to go together, and they’re here in generous amounts. As are chunky slices of just-cooked scallions that add their own mildly sharp, oniony tang along with their flash of bright color and plenty of juicy crispness.
And then there are the peanuts. Our recipe uses whole, skin-on, roasted nuts. These are perfect for being given a hot-and-fast toasting alongside the chilis as they get their darkening char. The result? The flavor and the crunch of the peanuts are intensified, adding a duo of totally different dimensions to your kung pao.
The high-umami sauce – a subtly balanced blend of salty, sweet, and sour
This is an elegantly poised blend of Sichuan peppercorns, sesame oil, light and dark soy, rice vinegar, sugar, and rice wine. Together with a little water and a high-grade chicken stock cube, this deeply rich mix is added to your kung pao just a few minutes before you serve it.
The last-minute addition of the sauce really is kung pao’s crowning glory. This is definitely not a cook-in sauce that’s allowed to melt its way into all the other flavors. It has to be added almost like a condiment so that it keeps all its character – and lets everything else keep theirs.
That means the phrase, ‘serve immediately’, is vitally important – stir the sauce into your kung pao, give it two minutes on a high heat and, yep, serve immediately.
The biggest surprise about kung pao chicken?
Far from being an age-old mainstay, kung pao is a relatively recent addition to the long-established cuisine of China.
Its rise to become a world-renowned dish only started in China itself during the latter part of the 19th Century. Its rapidly spreading, national appeal is routinely attributed to a chap called Ding Baozhen. He was an influential, bigwig official in the ranks of the Qing Dynasty, whose Emperors ruled the country from 1644 until it became a republic in 1912.
Today, he’s far better known as the man who drove the popularity of his beloved kung pao, turning it first into a signature dish of the province he governed – Sichuan. It was from there that kung pao’s reputation eventually powered it into kitchens around the world. It even took the nickname of its greatest fan with it and is still often referred to as Dong Bao chicken.
So, while kung pao might not have a respectably ancient history, I reckon you’ll agree that this new kid on the block is one of the very best Chinese dishes there is.
Kung Pao Chicken
For the kung pao
- 10 fresh red bird’s eye chilies cut into ¼-inch slices, seeds and all. The ones I used were all about 2 inches long.
- 1 pound boneless, skinless, chicken breasts cut into ¾-inch cubes. That’s a grand size for kung pao. Any smaller and the chicken will tend to dry out as it flash-fries. Any bigger, and the same thing tends to happen because the chicken takes longer to cook right through.
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 2 egg whites from a pair of medium size, free range eggs
- 3 teaspoons cornflour often also tagged as cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons ground sea salt
- 8 cloves garlic peeled and thinly sliced
- 8 spring onions stems and any limp green parts removed. Keep as much of the crisp green parts as you can, then cut the lot into slices about 1½ inches long. You want to separate the slices into two piles – one green, and one white. That’s important because they get cooked at different times.
- 2 tablespoons fresh ginger root very finely chopped, skin and all
- 4 ounces whole roasted peanuts skin-on
- 4 tablespoons coconut oil
- 2 cups cooked rice to serve with your kung pao chicken
For the sauce
- 4 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns finely ground in a pestle and mortar
- 4 teaspoons sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
- 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 2 heaped teaspoons brown sugar
- 1 chicken stock cube
- 2/3 cup boiling water
- Start your cooked rice prior to cooking your kung pan, as this is a quick one. Follow the instructions included with your rice.
- This is a one-pan dish – it all gets cooked in the same big pan. I used a heavy-based,12-inch skillet with sides about 2 inches high. That was big enough for all the stir frying and for bringing everything together with the sauce. A big, heavy bottomed saucepan will do just as well – as will a large wok if you have one.
- Hot and fast are the watchwords for kung pao, so it’s best to have all your ingredients prepped and ready to go before you begin cooking – hot and fast.
- Ideally, you want all the ingredients to be at room temperature before you start cooking. That’s especially true for the chicken because it’s only going to get a couple of minutes’ frying over a high heat. If it’s still cold from your refrigerator, it won’t cook quickly enough.
- So, for the room temperature chicken, mix the egg whites, 2 teaspoons sesame oil, the cornflour, and salt. I use a little whisk for this to make sure I get a really smooth mixture.
- Pour the thickish mix into a good size mixing bowl and add the cubed chicken. Now use your fingers to give the chicken a really thorough coating of the mix.
- This process of protectively coating the chicken is sometimes referred to as ‘velveting’. It certainly keeps the chicken juicily tender when it gets stir-fried hot and fast, and it also gives its surface a lovely glossy appearance.
- Once the chicken’s prepped, you can get your sauce ready – simply stir all its ingredients together in a bowl. It’s important to use boiling water here because it means the stock cube will dissolve easily, the ground Sichuan peppercorns will soften nicely, and all the other ingredients will get really well combined. Good. You’re now all set to start cooking your kung pao. Quickly.
- Set you big pan onto a high heat and add the coconut oil. As the oil is heating, give the chicken another good ‘stirring’ with your fingers so that the cubes pick up as much of their ‘velveting’ mix as possible.
- When the oil just starts smoking, stir in the chicken. Keep the heat on high and stir fry the chicken for 90 seconds in the fiercely sizzling oil. You want to keep the cubes turning as they fry, and for them to pick up just a hint of a pale – and I mean pale – gold color all over. Take the pan off the heat and, fast as you can, remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and set it aside on a big dinner plate. Try to leave as much oil as possible in the pan.
- Return your pan to a high heat. The moment the oil just starts smoking, stir in the peanuts and two-thirds of the sliced chilies. (The remaining third are heading for your kung pao right at the very end of its cooking.)
- Stir fry the peanuts and chilies on that high heat for 60 seconds until they just start to take on a little darkening char. Now add the white slices of spring onion, garlic, and ginger.
- Keep the heat on high and stir fry the lot for another 60 seconds or so. You’re aiming here for the white slices of onion to just start getting a little char on their outsides. Once that happens, add the green slices of onion and keep stir frying for another 30 seconds on that high heat – just until the green slices start to wilt slightly.
- Drop the heat to medium-high and pour in your sauce. Give the pan a gentle stirring so that the sauce gets thoroughly mixed with everything else. Take a little care with your stirring so as not to break up the spring onion and the peanuts.
- As soon as the sauce comes up to a brisk bubble, carefully stir in the chicken, all its plate juices, and the remaining third of your bird’s eye chilies. Keep the heat on medium high and let the pan cook at a quick simmer – but not boiling – for its final two minutes. Give the pan a final careful stirring, and that’s it – your kung pao is ready. Serve immediately.
- I like to take my still-bubbling, big pan straight from the stove to the table – and let folks help themselves. Immediately.