That's Nuts: Is Kung Pao Chicken Authentic?

Note: Lee Zalben, a.k.a. "the Peanut Butter Guy" is the creator of the Peanut Butter & Co., a New York sandwich shop with a national line of nut butters. Every week he'll chime in with some nuttiness. This week, he questions the authenticity of Kung Pao chicken.

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[Flickr: Lewi Hirvela]

They call me "The Peanut Butter Guy." Everyone just assumes I know everything there is to know about peanuts and peanut butter, even the most esoteric and tangential of facts.

I was out with some friends the other night at a popular Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. Of course I ordered the Kung Pao chicken. In part, because wherever I go, everyone always expects me to order the dish on the menu with peanuts in it, and in part because I really like Kung Pao chicken. (Peanuts are a great partner for chili peppers.)

One of my friends immediately started quizzing me, and a debate ensued over the authenticity of Kung Pao chicken as a traditional Chinese dish. Someone swore that General Tso's chicken was a completely made-up American creation, asserting that Kung Pao chicken was too. At the time, I wasn't sure if Kung Pao chicken was "real" or not, but I found myself defending it. Peanuts are widely grown in China and used in Chinese cuisine quite a bit—it made sense.

The next day I consulted some cookbooks and other trusted sources. While the version of Kung Pao chicken that we eat in the U.S. is much different from the original, I'm happy to report that Kung Pao Chicken, is an actual Szechuan dish, named after a real person (a governor of China's Szechuan province).

Even better, it is traditionally prepared with peanuts (someone at the dinner table thought peanuts might have been an American influence). The big difference is that in the U.S., Szechuan peppercorns, an important component of the original, are usually left out, mostly because until recently, they were banned in the country for agricultural reasons.

All of this got me thinking more about peanuts in Chinese cuisine. In addition to the Kung Pao, I've had some delicious shrimp and peanut dumplings, as well as some tasty cookies (made with whole peanuts) baked as part of a Chinese New Year feast.

But I think my favorite use of peanuts in Chinese cooking is probably one of the simplest—as a garnish for congee, the simple rice porridge often eaten for breakfast and usually flavored with some shrimp, shredded chicken, or pork, and some raw minced vegetables. The peanuts add an incredible crunch and nuttiness to the whole thing.

So, eaters, what's your favorite use of nuts in Chinese cuisine?

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