The Food Lab: The Realest-Deal Kung Pao Chicken (Gong Bao Ji Ding)

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Editor's Note: This article is excerpted from the upcoming second volume of my book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. I hope you enjoy it. You can order the first book here or on Amazon, and sign up for The Food Lab Newsletter for news about the second book, new recipes and videos, and live events.

What does the phrase "real deal" mean to you? I hope it doesn't mean "most authentic" because, if so, I'll prove myself a liar before the end of this story.

For those of you keeping score at home (I know you're out there), yes, this is the third recipe for kung pao chicken that I've published here on Serious Eats in the last seven years. The first was my Real Deal Kung Pao Chicken, which was based off of a recipe I learned from a Sichuan chef who worked around Boston. That version was funky and fiery with fermented chili bean paste, chicken thighs, and leeks.

The second was my Takeout-Style Kung Pao Chicken, a decidedly milder version made with bell peppers and celery, just like those Upper West Side Chinese takeout joints I visited as a kid growing up in New York.

The version I'm sharing today is based upon the kung pao chicken I tasted at the source in Sichuan Province. As it turned out, the actual real-deal stuff in Chengdu was decidedly milder and simpler yet more nuanced than the fiery version I'd been cooking up at home. And with a cooking time of mere minutes and prep that can be done while your rice is cooking, it's a near-perfect weeknight dish.

Rather than getting smacked across the tastebuds with funky fermented bean paste, I got a nose-tingling and tongue-numbing whiff of citrusy Sichuan peppercorn. Instead of an intense mix of minced garlic, ginger, and scallions coating every morsel of chicken, the garlic and ginger flavors were gentle background notes, and the scallions were tender nubs interspersed with the chicken. No fatty, robust chicken thigh in the Chengdu version; instead, there were cubes of tender, moist chicken breast coated in a sweet, hot, and vinegary glaze.

When I started working to recreate this dish back at home, I didn't have to go much further than Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice. Her version starts with a handful of dried hot red chilies bloomed in oil along with some Sichuan peppercorns. This step allows the flavor of the chilies and the peppercorns to add a gentle fragrance to every bite without giving you the overwhelming metallic hit that powdered peppercorns can.

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The easiest way to prepare the chilies is to snip them into one-centimeter pieces with some kitchen shears, then shake out the excess seeds, which can make the dish too spicy. Sichuan peppercorns are not spicy at all, but rather have a unique mouth-numbing sensation that complements the heat of chilies very well (a combination known as ma-la). You can find Sichuan peppercorns in most Asian markets these days, or if not, you can easily order them online. The flavor in Sichuan peppercorns is all in the husks, so any small twigs or dark hard seeds you find should be picked out and discarded.

From there you stir-fry cubes of chicken breast that have been marinated with soy sauce, Shaoxing wine (you can use dry sherry in its place), cornstarch, and salt.

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Chicken breast has a reputation for being dry or bland, but with proper cooking (read: not overcooking), it can be as juicy and tender as you could hope for, with a mild flavor that better showcases the flavor of the wine. Meanwhile, the salt and soy sauce in the marinade help it to retain moisture (via their brining action), while the cornstarch provides a dual purpose: insulating the exterior of the chicken against drying out and turning stringy, and giving the sauce an absorptive surface to cling to.

From here, I stray from her recipe, but only slightly. Rather than adding garlic, ginger, and scallions all at once, I add the garlic (cut into thin slices) and ginger (julienned into fine matchsticks) first in order to get some of their flavor into the oil. Incidentally, if you like a more powerful garlic or ginger flavor (or simply lack the knife skills for julienning and thin-slicing), you can grate them both on a microplane or mince them by hand.

Next comes the peanuts and scallions. For the peanuts, typically you'd use raw ones that have been fried golden brown in oil. Unfortunately, raw peanuts can be a little hard to find and, moreover, roasted peanuts work nearly as well in this dish and require no prep other than opening a jar. For the scallions, I use the firm white and pale green parts only, cut into roughly peanut-sized pieces.

Finally, my version gets finished with a simple sauce made from a mixture of soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, Chinkiang vinegar, and honey (I find even the smallest amount of sesame oil, a common ingredient in this dish, to be distracting, but you can add a few drops if you'd like), bound together with just a touch of cornstarch. Even with the most precise measurements, stir-frying is an inherently unpredictable craft, so you should be prepared for some on-the-fly adjustments. If the sauce doesn't thicken as fast as the recipe suggests, let it sit just a bit longer. Or, if, as frequently happens to me now that I have a very powerful burner at home, the sauce thickens too fast, add water or chicken broth a tablespoon at a time until it forms a gorgeous, shiny glaze.

The whole dish cooks in about half the time it took you to read this article. It's hard to think of an easier weeknight meal.

Unlike many stir-fries, wok hei—the smoky "breath of the wok" achieved by stir-frying over extreme heat—plays only a minor role in the flavor of kung pao chicken. Still, you don't want to crowd the pan to the point where the chicken steams instead of frying, so I wouldn't recommend making more than a single (two-serving) batch at a time. If you must serve a larger group, cook in batches and combine everything at the end. (Or better yet, just do what I do and serve a wider variety of small plates).

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So what do I call this recipe now? Realer Deal Kung Pao chicken? Realest Deal? How about I keep it simple and just call it plain old "Kung Pao Chicken" and we can retcon my intent by claiming that by calling that other version "real deal," I really meant "spicy and funky."

Is this recipe better than the other two versions? Let's just say it's more "authentic" and I'll just let you interpret that as you will.

By the way, you can catch a quick video of me cooking this dish here on my YouTube channel.