Making “the real” Kung Pao Chicken

Because its the Chinese New Year and the Year of the Snake — and I’m a snake year baby — I decided to dust off my wok and cook some Asian food. After our trip to China last year, I’ve tried making quite a few Chinese dishes in my kitchen at home and played host to a Chinese pot luck. I took a class on dumpling making and recreated those greens pictured below. But there are still so many dishes I haven’t tried to make — Kung Pao Chicken was one of them.

Much of what I’ve learned about Chinese cooking has come from spending time with my friend Courtney, who speaks Mandarin and acted as our guide of sorts in China. That’s her pictured above ordering us some lunch in a restaurant in Beijing on our first day there. Courtney also turned me onto Diana Kuan’s food blog Appetite for China, which leads me to today’s post. When I saw that Diana had a new cookbook called “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook” featuring lots of recipes for food we ate in China, I promptly ordered myself a review copy.

My world-traveling friend J.J. told me before we left for China to make sure to try “the real” Kung Pao Chicken while we were there, and I did. There’s a picture of the dish we had in Beijing above. I even wrote a whole blog post about it. When I read Diana was encouraging bloggers to try her Kung Pao recipe as part of a virtual potluck to celebrate the Chinese New Year, I knew I had to try it. This is one of two recipes I’ve made from her cookbook — I’ll feature the second tomorrow — and both have been delicious.

The secret to making legit Kung Pao Chicken are these little babies. Sichuan peppercorns.

I found a big bag of them at my local Asian market for just a few bucks and hand-ground them to maximize the flavor of the Kung Pao sauce.

I was pretty surprised at how easy it was to make this dish. The sauce took just a few minutes and the list of ingredients isn’t exotic — one trip to the Asian market gets you the staples to make this dish and many others in the cookbook. The chicken soaks in a simple marinade for ten minutes or so, and it would be easy to substitute a different protein or even tofu in this dish if you don’t eat meat.

Dried red chilis — another ingredient easy to find at the Asian market.

I find that when I cook with my wok, mise-en-place becomes super important. (And that’s another food resolution down!)

I totally burned my first round of chilis  They turned black in like, five seconds. So I tossed them and started again after letting the wok cool down a touch. The second time they came out perfect — still red, a bit blackened, not charred. The dish came together incredibly fast and the kitchen smelled so good.

I was pleased to see that the Kung Pao looked a lot like the dish we ate in China. And if memory serves, it tasted almost just like it, too.

I’m also thrilled to be giving away one copy of Diana’s cookbook. Bloggers who cook one of six selected recipes from her book and do a post about it will be provided a copy of her book — I don’t have the book yet but will be playing host to the giveaway as soon as it arrives.  Two bloggers will also be selected to win a grand prize from Diana for their post — the drawing is random and I am required to let you know that I’m eligible, though I honestly would have cooked this dish even without a prize.

This post will be part of a roundup of posts from other bloggers like me who cook one of six dishes from the cookbook, and I’ll link to all those blogs so you can check out the other dishes.

Tomorrow I’ll show you the other entree I made from Diana’s book — Mapo Tofu, one of my favorites.

Kung Pao Chicken
Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal

1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast or thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
8 to 10 dried red chilis
5 scallions, white and green parts separated and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon minced or grated ginger
¼ cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts

1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon Chinese black vinegar, or substitute good-quality balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper

1. Marinate the chicken: In a medium bowl, stir together the soy sauce, rice wine, and cornstarch until the cornstarch is dissolved. Add the chicken and toss to coat. Let stand for 10 minutes.

2. Prepare the sauce: In another bowl, combine the vinegar, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, sugar, cornstarch, and Sichuan pepper. Stir until the sugar and cornstarch is dissolved and set aside.

3. You may need to turn on your stove’s exhaust fan, because stir-frying dried chilis on high heat can get a little smoky. Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat until a bead of water sizzles and evaporates on contact. Add the peanut oil and swirl to coat the base. Add the chilis and stir-fry for about 30 seconds, until the chilis have just begun to blacken and the oil is slightly fragrant. Add the chicken and stir-fry until no longer pink, about 2 to 3 minutes.

4. Add the scallion whites, garlic, and ginger, and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Pour in the sauce and mix to coat the other ingredients. Stir in the peanuts and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a serving plate, sprinkle the scallion greens on top, and serve.

Recipe courtesy “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook” by Diana Kwan.

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