KUNG pao chicken is a popular dish that is found in almost every Chinese restaurant all over the world.
The recipe originated from Sichuan province in China and it has become a staple dish at Americanised Chinese restaurants.
There may be slight variations in seasoning depending on the different regions, but the basic components are chicken cubes, cashew nuts and dried red chillies, all smothered in a sweet and spicy dark gravy.
If you’ve ever had kung pao chicken in a Westernised Chinese restaurant, then you may have encountered bell pepper, carrots, and orange juice in the dish, a result of the recipe having evolved with time and distance.
This favourite dish has other versions, with recipes that substitute chicken with pork, fish, shrimp or frog.
The dish is believed to have been named after Ding Baozhen, the governor of Sichuan province during the late Qing Dynasty.
He was one of the gongbao, or kung pao, which literally means “palace guardian”.
The chicken meat used is often cut into small cubes, or gai ding, which is also a play on words for the surname Ding.
The original kung pao chicken recipe calls for Sichuan peppercorns, although the dish doesn’t have the numbing mala flavour profile that these peppers usually present.
The trace amount that is flash-fried at the beginning of this dish is just enough to add fragrance to the oil without extruding all its numbing qualities.
It is common to find peanuts in kung pao chicken instead of cashew nuts — they are both interchangeable in this dish.
Although some prefer toasting nuts in a dry wok, purists will say that the nuts should be fried in oil before other ingredients are added.
Whichever method you choose, it is recommended that the nuts be removed from the wok before other ingredients are cooked, then returned to the dish just before serving, to retain their crunchiness.
As in all Chinese dishes, properly prepared kung pao chicken has to balance the piquancy of the pepper with sugar, soy sauce and vinegar in the final gravy seasoning.
Kung pao chicken
½ tsp sesame oil
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp Shaoxing wine
2 tbsp cooking oil
½ cup cashew nuts
10 dried chillies, cut into 2cm lengths
1½ tsp Sichuan peppercorns
1 knob ginger, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
5 stalks spring onions, diced and separated into whites and greens
1 red chilli
½ bulb red onion, cut into chunks
2 tsp cornstarch
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1½ tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp Chinese black vinegar
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
3 tbsp sugar
½ tsp sesame oil
½ cup water
Marinate chicken with marinade ingredients for 10 to 20 minutes.
Mix gravy ingredients in a small bowl until cornstarch is dissolved.
Heat empty wok over medium heat.
Add cashew nuts and toast until light golden. Remove cashews.
Heat oil in wok over high heat. Add dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns and temper until oil gets fragrant. Add ginger and garlic and saute 30 seconds until fragrant.
Add chicken, cook until meat turns white, then add the scallion whites and red onion.
Toss until chicken is cooked through, about two minutes.
Add gravy and bring to a simmer, until the sauce has reduced into a thick syrup.
Just before dishing out, stir in red chillies, toasted cashew nuts and spring onion greens.
Serve immediately with steamed rice.
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