Continuing the Land of Plenty series, this weekend I made on of my all time favorites – Kung Pao chicken. There is some interesting historical background on this dish in the book, which you can also read on this website (which also has the Kung Pao recipe).
Kung Pao is great because it has significant heat, a touch of sweetness, stark flavor/texture contrast from the roasted peanuts, and an altogether pleasing aesthetic. But I’ve never made it at home, and I’ve never seen it on an “authentic” Sichuan menu. I’ve pretty much been relegated to ordering the fast-food Chinese delivery version. I was interested to see how this compared – the ingredients appeared to be the same as the mass-produced version, though this dish of course utilizes the Sichuan peppercorn, and the preparation method could result in something very different than the dish to which I’m accustomed. Let’s find out.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about cooking Sichuan, and cooking with a wok in general, is that you need to get your shit mise en place put together before you start cooking. I threw about 1/2 cup of raw peanuts (from Super H Mart in Duluth) in the oven at 350 and amassed all my other ingredients: soy sauces, vinegar, rice wine, sesame oil, potato starch, dried chiles, Sichuan pepper, ginger, garlic, the bottom part of the scallions, and some butterflied chicken breast from the Buford Highway Farmer’s Market. BHFM had a great price on this chicken, and the butterflied version is perfect because your Sichuan recipes are always going to have you cutting thin, small strips of meat. This saves you some time, money, and I don’t see any degradation in quality over a full breast.
I roasted the peanuts for 15 minutes, and they came out a little overcooked. I don’t mind them this way, but I should have taken them out after 10 minutes, or perhaps only cooked them at 300 instead of 350 degrees.
Aaron (my roommate/saucier for those that don’t know me personally) was kind enough to create the marinade for the chicken, as well as the sauce, while I prepared the vegetables and the chicken. I could improve at cutting more uniform slices of chicken so that everything cooks evenly.
I started by cooking the Sichuan pepper and the cut chiles in peanut oil over a high flame. They will cook/burn quickly, so I recommend having your wok very hot and only cooking them for 10-15 seconds before you add the chicken. Be sure to stir rapidly throughout this process.
After the chicken cooked for 30 seconds or so, I added the garlic/ginger/scallions and let that cook until the chicken was almost cooked through, again, stirring very rapidly over as high of heat as possible.
Above – now I’m ready to add the sauce.
The sauce has now been added, and I let it cook for about 20-30 seconds so that it would thicken up. The potato starch is what is causing it to thicken into a great sauce. At this point, I removed the wok from the heat, stirred in the peanuts, and plated.
Here it is plated, ready to be devoured. I thought it was very good, and I think Aaron agreed, but be forewarned that this meal brought some serious heat. I love spicy food, but this was getting close to the “hiccup threshold”.
The potato starch marinade on the chicken resulted in a fantastic texture, and the chicken was still tender and moist, I thought it was cooked very well. The sauce was a little different than what I’m used to in a Kung Pao, having a slightly thicker texture, and a bit sweeter than I’m accustomed. The ginger was a nice touch, though sometimes it can overpower a bite if you get a large slice. The addition of the Sichuan pepper is amazing – the smoky/wood flavor and aromatics that it adds is incomparable. I enjoyed this version much more than any other I’ve had at a restaurant. That could be the home-cooking talking though. :-)
If you like Kung Pao, I definitely recommend trying Fuchsia’s recipe.