How to Make the Best Cashew Chicken at Home

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This is ding. [Photographs: Shao Z.]

One of the most important steps of stir-frying begins before you even take the wok out. Stir-fry is all about quick cooking, and how your vegetables and proteins are diced and sliced plays an essential part in the success of the the final dish. Proteins and vegetables should be uniformly cut to insure even cooking, and this step is especially important in ding ( 炒肉丁) dishes.

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What exactly is a "ding" dish? Most likely you've already eaten one or two. The most popular one is Kung Pao Chicken; the second most popular is this one—Cashew Chicken. If you think about these two dishes, besides having chicken as their main protein, there is something else that's similar about them. It's the way the vegetables and protein are diced, specifically in a cube shape. That basically sums up what a "ding" dish is. It's a stir-fry dish containing both a protein and a variety of vegetables, plus sometimes a nut, and its ingredients are diced in a uniform bite-sized, cube-like shape. If you do a quick image search of 炒肉丁, which translate to "stir-fry meat ding," you'll see that there are a variety of "ding" dishes.

Another important element of a "ding" dish is the mixture of textures the ingredients bring. The protein, usually chicken, beef, pork, or shrimp, provides that tender yet chewy texture. Then you need something crunchy. This is usually when nuts and certain vegetables come into play. Walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, peanuts, and cashews are the most popular nut choices. As for the vegetables, water chestnuts, carrots, celery, and diced long beans work well. One of my favorite vegetables for great crunch is jicama.

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When you think of jicama, you probably don't think of using it in a stir-fry (you also may not associate it with Chinese food, given that it's native to Mexico, but it has actually become a popular ingredient in Chinese cuisine). In Cantonese, jicama is known as sai got (沙葛). In Mandarin its name is liang she (凉薯). The great thing about jicama in a stir-fry is it adds crispness and just the right amount of sweetness—it's somewhere between a water chestnut and an Asian pear in flavor and texture.

Besides Kung Pao Chicken and Cashew Chicken, there are almost an endless variety of different "ding" dishes. Some of my favorites include:

  • Chinese Roast Pork Vegetable Ding: Roast pork, celery, carrots, and corn
  • Spicy Long Beans with Chicken Ding: chicken, diced long beans, chili peppers, onions, and bell peppers
  • Vegetarian Ding: pine nuts, corn, celery, onion, carrots, and five spiced tofu
  • Spicy Okra and Pork Ding: okra, pork, chili peppers, and onions

You can also get creative with the seasonings and aromatics in a "ding" dish. If you like it hot and spicy, use diced chili peppers. Garlic, ginger, and scallions are also great.

This recipe brings together some of my favorite "ding" dish ingredients. First is the chicken. I picked chicken breast because it's one of the easiest parts from the chicken to dice into cube-like shapes. If you prefer dark meat, use the thigh instead.

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After you dice your chicken, marinate it in a mix of oil, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, white pepper, sugar, table salt, and cornstarch. You can do this overnight or set it aside in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

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For crunch, I call on jicama and celery. If you've never worked with jicama before, you would probably think the best way to remove the skin from a jicama is with a peeler. But before you reach for your peeler, cut the jicama in half. Then using your finger, scrape a small part of the papery jicama skin off, and peel it back. You can easily peel jicama this way, as long as it's not coated in wax (some stores do this to lengthen shelf life). If you do have the wax skin version, go ahead and use a peeler. Once your jicama is peeled, rinse with cold running water to get rid of any dirt.

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Zucchini, mushrooms, and red bell pepper bulk up the dish and contribute a pop of color. Dice all your vegetables the same size as the chicken. Toasted cashews add crunch and a rich nutty flavor. Next, whip up a quick and easy sauce by combining water, soy sauce, sesame oil, finely minced garlic, and cornstarch. When you have all your ingredients ready, it's time to stir-fry.

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First, stir-fry the chicken in a hot wok. When the chicken is done, take it out, re-heat the wok, and add the mushrooms.

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As you cook the fresh mushrooms, they will release some of their liquid. Just continue cooking until it evaporates.

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When that happens, take the mushrooms out, heat up the wok again with oil and add the celery, zucchini, and jicama. After a few minutes of stir-frying, the jicama should start to brown a little.

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Next, add the red bell pepper. Stir-fry and season with a few pinches of salt.

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Return the cooked mushrooms and the chicken back to the wok. Continue stir-frying.

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Give the sauce a good stir before you add it to the wok—you want to make sure the cornstarch in the sauce has not settled to the bottom.

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Keep cooking until the sauce thickens and then turn off the heat.

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Add some of the cashews and mix everything together. Plate it, top it with the remaining cashews, and serve it right away with white rice on the side.

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Then ding your dinner bell, 'cause it's time for the ding.