Kung Pao Chicken: This One Does it for Me.
I will go to the ends of the earth for a good Kung Pao. Most recipes I’ve tried have been fine, but they didn’t really flick my bic, you know? It wasn’t until I made a literal parade of Kung Pao chicken, for my own side-by-side taste test, that I really saw the differences between those recipes. From there, I was able to take my favorite characteristics, and combine them into one dish. But, before you fire up the wok, maybe I should explain what I think are the “must-have” qualities of Kung Pao — just to be on the same page.
First of all, Kung Pao has got to have some heat, not enough to melt your mind (unless you like that sort of thing), but enough to know it’s from Sichuan. And, that heat should have a pronounced roasted flavor that only comes from dried Thai chiles stir-fried in oil. A good, roasted chili oil will work in a pinch.
Second, Kung Pao must have peanuts. Those rich, salty, crunchy bits counterpoint the heat and acidity perfectly. And, you don’t mess with perfection.
A classic Kung Pao relies on a hefty punch of vinegar to play with the peanuts and chilies. Lemon and lime juice don’t work; they are too light and refreshing. You need the deep, rich notes of Chinkiang black vinegar or balsamic — something that can hold its own.
Sichuan pepper (not related to black or white peppercorns) gives Asian dishes a touch of spiced perfume. According to Wikipedia, it “creates a tingly numbness in the mouth that sets the stage for hot spices.” Isn’t that clever? Well, whether it has a numbing effect or not, it does give Kung Pao a unique little flavor twist.
I think Kung Pao is classic with chicken; but tofu and shrimp are a close second. I haven’t tried it with beef or pork, but I like a spicy/pungent sauce with both, so it stands to reason that it would be good. (Side note: If using tofu or shrimp, omit the marinade.)
During the Kung Pao taste test, there was one recipe that had an abundance of sauce, so I threw in some Chinese egg noodles. Holy smokes, Kung Pao Noodles are killer! (Side note: if using noodles, substitute 8 oz. or 4 cups noodles in place of the chicken.)
And last, but certainly not least, are crisp vegetables. As long as you have celery and onions, diced into 1-inch cubes, you are golden. I also like green onions tossed in at the end. But, if you feel the need to add a little something else, it’s totally up to you. Red and yellow peppers are kind of fun, and in the photo above, I added a handful of asparagus.
Kung Pao Chicken
- 12 oz. boneless chicken breast or thigh, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
- 1 Tbs. egg white, lightly beaten
- 2 tsp. cornstarch
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1-1/2 tsp. Shaoxing or sherry
If you like it saucier (i.e. if you are serving it with rice), you can make 1-1/2 to 2-times the amount of sauce.
- 2 Tbs. chicken broth
- 2 Tbs. Chinkiang black vinegar or balsamic vinegar
- 1-1/2 Tbs. Shoaxing wine or sherry
- 1 Tbs. hoisin sauce
- 1 Tbs. soy sauce
- 1 tsp. sesame oil
- 1 tsp. sambal oelek or chili garlic sauce
- 1/4 tsp. freshly toasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 tsp. cornstarch
- 2 Tbs. peanut or grapeseed oil, divided
- 4 to 8 dried red chili peppers, snipped on one end to release seeds
- 2 Tbs. minced ginger
- 1 Tbs. minced garlic
- 1/2 onion, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1/2 red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 3/4 cup unsalted roasted peanuts
- 1/2 cup chopped scallions
In medium bowl, combine chicken/marinade ingredients until cornstarch is dissolved; set uncovered in fridge for about 30 minutes.
In small bowl, whisk together sauce ingredients; set aside.
Place prepped vegetables in sections on a plate. (This makes the process a lot easier to manage. It’s much easier to bring an orderly plate to the wok and swoosh in various ingredients with your stir-frying utensil, rather than scooping the ingredients up one at a time from a cutting board. For instance, the garlic can burn by the time you get the onions there.)
Place garnishes together in small bowl; set aside.
Bring 1 quart of water to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and carefully add chicken, stirring so it doesn’t clump. Cook for 1 minute or until it is opaque, but not cooked through. Drain chicken in colander, shaking the colander to remove excess water.
Heat wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 1 Tbs. of the peanut oil and chilies; stir-fry for 5 seconds, or until the chilies just begin to smoke. Add garlic, ginger, onions and celery; stir-fry 1 minute, until onion just begins to color. Add peppers; stir-fry another minute or two, until vegetables are tender-crisp.
Push vegetables to the sides of wok and carefully add chicken; stir-fry the chicken in the wok’s well for 30 seconds (giving the wok time to return to full temperature). Swirl in broth mixture around the sides of the wok; stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Stir in peanuts and scallions; serve immediately.