Saturday, May 7, 2011

Kung Pao Chicken - A Homestyle Favorite

As you may know, my spouse is Chinese and we cook a Chinese dinner once a week.  So this week I thought I would highlight his version of the Kung Pao chicken, which is my favorite Chinese dish.   This classic Sichuan dish is also known as Kung Bao chicken, Gung Po chicken, and Kung Po chicken in English.  It is reportedly named after a late Qing Dynasty official who served as head of  Sichuan province . His title was Gōng Bǎo (宮保), or palatial guardian and the name "Kung Pao" is derived from this.  During the cultural revolution it was renamed "fast-fried chicken cubes" (hong bao ji ding) or "chicken cubes with seared chiles" (hu la ji ding)  until the 1980's when its original name was once again fashionable.   

While the dish exists in both traditional Sichuan and Westernized versions, I'm told that in China it is thought of as an 'old home-style' type dish and no longer popular in restaurants.  This may be true in China, but in the United States you find it on most every Chinese restaurant menu. 

While the classic version in both countries calls for chicken, you can easily substitute shrimp or pork in the recipe, although traditionally only a single meat is used.  The trademark ingredient is peanuts, which you roast in the wok.  In China it is not traditional to include vegetables such as bell peppers, carrots or celery, but in the U.S. you usually find these ingredients.  I include them here but feel free to omit them if you want to be more authentic.  I personally like the addition of vegetables in the dish.  I also include our 'secret ingredient' in this recipe which you won't find many other places, but I do think it adds to both the texture of the sauce as well as to the flavor.  When this American-style dish is served with white rice, you have a complete meal.  It should be noted however, that in  China all food is served family style and no good family would present you with one single dish.  As such, we usually have three dishes on nights when we make Chinese.  Each person receives a bowl (or plate) of white fluffy rice, and then servings of each of the three dishes.

Recipe

•2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 7 to 8 ounces each
• carrots, bell peppers, celery or other vegetables of your choosing

Marinade:
•2 teaspoons soy sauce

•2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
•1 teaspoon sesame oil
•1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

Sauce:
•2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
•1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
•1 teaspoon sugar

Other:
•8 small dried red chili peppers (stems removed)
•2 cloves garlic
•2 green onions
•4 tablespoons Canola oil for stir-frying, or as needed
•1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns or crushed red chili peppers if you can't find the Sichuan variety
•1/2 cup peanuts, raw without skins (or unsalted roasted as a substitute)
•1 tablespoon of peanut butter (secret ingredient)

Cut the chicken into bit sized cubes. Combine with the marinade ingredients, adding the cornstarch last. Marinate the chicken for 30 minutes.

While the chicken is marinating, prepare the sauce in a small bowl by combining the dark soy sauce, rice wine and sugar. Set aside.  Peel and finely chop the garlic. Cut the green onion on the diagonal into thirds.  Wash and cut up any vegetables you have chosen to include (carrots, celery, bell peppers, etc.)

Heat the wok over high heat and add 2 tablespoons canola oil.  When the oil is very hot but not smoking, add the peanuts and stir fry until browned.  Remove from the wok.  Add the chicken to the wok and stir-fry quickly until it turns white and crispy but is not quite cooked through.  Remove from the wok to a separate bowl.

Add 2 more tablespoons oil. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and stir-fry about 30 seconds. Add the chili peppers (optional) and the Szechuan peppercorn. Stir-fry a few seconds until they turn dark red.

Add the sauce to the wok. Bring to a boil. Add the cut up vegetables and cook until just tender, approximately 4 minutes.  Add the chicken back into the pan with the vegetables. Stir in the peanuts and peanut butter, along with most (but not all) of the green onion. Remove from the heat and move to serving dish,  Sprinkle with the remaining green onions.   Serve with white rice.

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