The real Kung Pao Chicken

SHANGHAI — During my nine days in China, I did not get to eat much Chinese food. That’s because, as luck would have it, I got sick on the plane to Beijing and I remained sick for the bulk of our trip. Being sick in Omaha isn’t fun. Being sick in China is a whole lot less fun. I won’t bore you with the details of my illness, though it’s completely necessary for me to thank my friends Courtney and Michael and my husband Matthew for taking such good care of me while we were in Beijing and I felt like I might not make it to Shanghai, let alone back to Omaha, in one piece.

I did make it to Shanghai. And save for one day when I felt truly ill, I made it through Beijing. In order to get around in one piece and see the cities, most of what I ate looked like this:

This is probably the most unflattering food photo I took the whole trip. But thank goodness I was in a country where there’s a lot of white rice. Chinese Gatorade tastes just like it does, I imagine, everywhere else. Not exactly the food of my dreams, but hey. You do what you have to do. Now. Moving on.

One thing my world-traveling friend J.J. (you may remember him from my Reuben story — he’s the guy who at one time had eaten every Reuben in the city of Lincoln) told me to do before we left was to try real Kung Pao Chicken. Matthew and I ordered Kung Pao Chicken at a restaurant not far from the Temple of Heaven in Beijing on our second day in the city.

Here’s Courtney, placing our orders. I loved watching Courtney converse in Mandarin with the wait staff and I also liked being surprised at what appeared on our table at each place we visited.  Ordering food in China is different. When you sit down at a table, the waitress or waiter comes immediately to your side and waits for you to make a selection. There’s not a lot of time to linger and food comes out quickly after you ask for it. Cold dishes usually come first, then hot dishes, and soup usually came last. Once the food arrives, the waiter disappears, leaving you to eat in peace. And when you’re ready to pay, you have to holler at them for the check as they whiz by your table.

Courtney and Michael are vegetarians, which meant we tried loads of different types of tofu and vegetables that I’d never had before. And since I wasn’t feeling so hot anyway, tofu and vegetables seemed the safest things to eat.

Three dishes we tried that day: Cooked spinach, served hot, with lots of garlic and roasted peanuts; dark tofu, served cold, with soy, green onions and more peanuts; and potatoes shaved thin like noodles and served hot, sort of like Chinese hash browns. I’d never seen such dark tofu before, but tofu in China comes in shades from white to dark brown, all shapes and all levels of firmness. I’ll show you a photo in a later blog post that includes at least 20 different types of tofu. I wish I’d been able to try more of them.

On to the Kung Pao Chicken.

Kung Pao Chicken, also called Gong Bao Chicken (宫保鸡丁) comes in a Sichuan version and a Westernized version. The main difference between the real version and the sweeter American version: Sichuan peppercorns. The peppercorns are one ingredient in Chinese Five Spice powder and they lend a flavor to the dish that I’ve never tasted before. The rest of the most common spices in Chinese Five Spice are star anise, cloves, cinnamon and ground fennel.

The especially tender chicken in this stir fry burst with mild, sweet spice flavors at first and, upon swallowing, that sweetness morphed into a deep, slow, subtle burn. Even though I only took a couple bites, it was enough to say that the real deal Kung Pao Chicken is really, really good. It’s perfectly spicy, amazingly savory and just flat out amazing.

Here’s one more fun fact about Kung Pao Chicken: it’s allegedly named after Ding Baozhen, a late Qing dynasty official who was the head of Shandong province and later the governor of Sichuan province. The name “Kung Pao” is derived from his title, “Gong Bao,” which means “palace guardian.” During the Cultural Revolution, Kung Pao Chicken became a politically incorrect dish because of its association with Ding Baozhen. Until the 1980s, most menus listed it as “fast fried chicken cubes” or “chicken cubes with seared chiles.” Not exactly appetizing names, huh?

Up next: Street fashion in China.

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  1. Adam H says:

    These dishes look so fresh and delish! I have never had Sichuan Peppercorns. Any idea if they are easily found in the Americas?

    1. Sarah Baker Hansen Sarah Baker Hansen says:

      Hi Adam! Yes, Penzey’s Spices — a national chain of spice stores that has a really great selection — sells Sichuan Peppercorns. They also sell Chinese Five Spice, but their blend doesn’t include the peppecorns. They’re definitely worth adding.

  2. Gren Rodricks says:

    Hi sarah,
    I think you have a great take on the kung pao chicken a personal favorite of mine at THE INDIAN OVEN where i was chef for almost 10 years.I have now moved on as a GM with PANDA EXPRESS and would love to invite you to taste kung pao the best I have ever tasted.Indeed it will be a surprise that we made this dish in an indian restaurant …….hoever I am a spice freak so it came naturally to me ……..hope fully we can challenge the CHILLI..