How to Make Takeout-Style Kung Pao Chicken

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Tender chunks of chicken with bell peppers, celery, chilies, and peanuts in a bright, hot sauce. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

As you are reading this, I will most likely have just finished the Chinese leg of my 2 1/2-month trip around Asia, my mouth still numb and tingly from the vats of mapo tofu, shuiziu yu, and gonbao jiding I wolfed down in Sichuan. As a kid, though, my absolute favorite Chinese dish—takeout-style kung pao chicken—had very little to do with the food I've been eating in real China. But just because it's a Chinese-American standard, complete with slightly-gloppy-sauce and mild spicing doesn't make diced chicken with peppers and peanuts any less delicious.

Actually, perhaps its fitting, as kung pao chicken, the Sichuan classic made with tons of hot dried chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, and peanuts in a vinegary sauce is the where this dish finds its roots.

Trade out most of the dried chilies for diced bell peppers and celery, use white vinegar in place of the dark Chinkiang vinegar, and you're basically there. All you need is a bottomless pot of tea, some steamed white rice, perhaps a side of egg drop or hot and sour soup, and a fortune cookie or two and you've hit lunch-special nirvana.

Ready for the step-by-step?

Step 1: Marinate and Stir-Fry Chicken

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First up, I lightly marinate my chicken, using our basic guidelines for Chinese marinades. Chunks of dark-meat chicken are marinated in a mixture of salt, sugar, white pepper, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, oil, and a touch of cornstarch. Dark meat can survive the high heat of a wok much better than white meat, and it's extremely cost-effective, especially if you learn how to debone chicken thighs yourself.

About 20 minutes in the marinade is enough to get the flavor stuck firmly to the surface of the meat.

As with all stir-fries, I follow my own Wok Skills 101 lesson, namely, cooking meats and vegetables in batches to ensure that each is exposed to blazing high heat, then recombining them with the sauce at the end.

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With a rip-roaring, smoking-hot wok, the chicken should take on color in just a matter of minutes. Lightly browned but still raw in the center is what we're going for here. Don't worry about that raw center: The chicken will continue to cook via residual heat once it gets transferred to a bowl and set aside, and it'll get heated up once more in the sauce later on.

Step 2: The Vegetables

The next step is to stir-fry the vegetables. I use red and green bell peppers cut into large dice, along with celery that's cut into equal-sized chunks

If you have a pretty powerful burner, you'll probably be able to cook the celery and peppers together. Otherwise, you'll want to cook them in batches, letting the oil come to a light smoke in the bottom of the wok before adding each batch of vegetables. The goal is to get some charring and color on them before they soften too much—this shouldn't take more than a minute or two.

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Once the vegetables are done, in go the peanuts. Traditional Chinese recipes will have you par-cook raw peanuts by roasting, simmering, or frying before you subsequently stir-fry them. Thankfully, this is not a traditional Chinese recipe, and roasted peanuts straight off the supermarket shelf do just fine.

Step 3: Time to Aromatize!

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Now to layer on the aromatics. It starts with finely minced garlic, ginger, and scallions, the holy trinity of Chinese-American cuisine. I give it a few tosses just so it loses its raw edge before adding in a handful of dried red chilies.

If you've ever eaten this dish at a Chinese restaurant, you'll know that its hot in name only. There's not much heat to warrant the one red chili that gets printed on the menu next to the title. In this case, the chilies are really more for their roasty aroma than for actual capsicum heat. (Though if you'd like, you can slit them open to spill out some of their hotter innards.)

Finally, the chicken goes back in for a quick heat-through and a toss.

Step 4: Sauce it Up!

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Last step: add the sauce, which you've thoughtfully pre-mixed and had ready to go from the start (right?). It's a simple blend of soy sauce, chicken broth, vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, and cornstarch. After dumping it over the ingredients, a quick toss over the heat should thicken it up enough to coat each piece in a glossy sheen without getting too gloppy.

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Ok, a little gloppiness is ok. It's an essential part of the totally authentic inauthentic experience, right?

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I get a little giddy when I see food like this. Don't get me wrong, I get giddy when I see real Chinese food, with thousands of years of development and tradition poured into it, but there's a reason those Upper West Side Cantonese restaurants all do so well, and it's got something to do with food like this.

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