We are only a few days away from the Chinese New Year, which Chinese communities across the world will start celebrating this weekend. And we are continuing our journey with a dish that is probably the most famous and preferred Chinese dish across the world, especially by non Chinese: kung pao chicken.
Kung pao chicken, also called gong bao, kung po or gōngbǎo jīdīng (宫保鸡丁) in its full version, is a deliciously spicy stir-fry dish that is prepared with chicken as well as peanuts, and chili peppers, to which vegetables are sometimes added.
Kung pao chicken offers a mouthwatering, complex sauce that combines salty, sweet, sour, and spicy flavors.
No one can really agrees on the details of the origins of this dish, although we know it is named after Ding Baozhen, a high ranked government official originally from the province of Guizhou, but who lived his adulthood in the province of Sichuan in the mid nineteenth century during the late Qing dynasty.
One of the stories says that as a boy in Guizhou, Ding Baozhen accidentally fell into the water. He couldn’t swim, but a man who was passing by saved his life. Later, when he became a government official in the Sichuan Province, he decided to pay visit to the family of the man who saved his life to express his gratitude.
Over there, Ding Baozhen was served a dish combining diced chicken breast, peanuts, and Sichuan peppercorns. He liked so much that he asked for the recipe and started eating it and serving it to his guests regularly. The dish quickly became popular around the Sichuan Province, where it got the name gōngbǎo jīdīng in honor of Ding Baozhen, whose nickname was Ding Gongbao (丁宮保).
Another legend, rather hard to believe, would want us to believe that Ding Baozhen had very bad teeth, and that his chef invented a dish with finely chopped chicken that Ding started to love. Others also say that it is a dish that he ate at a modest restaurant when he went out in humble dress to observe the real lives of his subjects.
There is also some controversy over the place of birth of this dish. Although it is now recognized as a staple of Sichuan cuisine, it is also claimed by the neighboring Province of Guizhou, where Ding Baozhen is originally from.
Whatever the truth about the real origins of this magnificent dish, its association with an imperial bureaucrat from the Qing dynasty was enough to push the radical leaders of the Cultural Revolution including Mao Zedong, to rename this dish as “fast-fried chicken cubes” (hong bao jiding) or “chicken cubes with seared chiles” (hula jiding). It only started being called kung pao chicken or gōngbǎo jīdīng in the early 1980s with Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.
This dish has become very popular outside China, especially in the United States. However, the American version left out one of the most important ingredients of this dish until recently, which was a real shame as the numbing spiciness (called mala in Chinese) is what makes this dish so special.
Indeed, from 1968 to 2005, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the importation of Sichuan peppercorns or hua jiao (literally flower pepper) as these were found to be capable of carrying citrus canker, a bacterial disease that could potentially harm citrus crops in the U.S.
An interesting fact is that Sichuan peppercorns aren’t even a pepper at all. It is really an aromatic berry from the prickly ash tree.
I made this dish with Vera during my last visit to Paris for a Chinese feast where we invited friends and family. I guess we forgot to tell our guests that the dish was quite spicy. Oops! Well, they eventually loved the dish… after they were able to tame the numbness!
- 1 lb chicken breast , cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil
- 8 red chilis (ideally dried)
- 1 small red pepper , diced (optional)
- 3 scallions , thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic , minced
- 1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
- ½ cup dry-roasted peanuts
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine (or dry cooking sherry wine)
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon Chinese black vinegar (Chinkiang)
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon hoisin sauce
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns
- 4 tablespoons water
- In a bowl, stir together the soy sauce, rice wine, and cornstarch until dissolved. Add the diced chicken and toss to coat. Let stand for about 10 minutes.
- In a separate bowl, combine the vinegar, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, toasted sesame oil, sugar, cornstarch, ground Sichuan peppercorns and water. Stir until everything is dissolved and set aside.
- Heat a wok over medium/high heat. Add the peanut oil. Add the chilis and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. Add the chicken and stir-fry for about 3 minutes.
- Add the garlic, and ginger, and continue stir-frying for 30 seconds. Pour in the stir-fry sauce and mix to coat the chicken. Stir in the peanuts and half of the scallions and cook for another 2 minutes.
- Transfer to a serving plate, garnish with half of the scallions and serve immediately with jasmine rice.