Bang Bang Chicken, Hold the Bangin': The Modern Way to Make Sichuan Chicken Salad

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If I'm to trust the results of a Google search, when most folks hear the phrase "bang bang chicken," they think of a Cheesecake Factory concoction with fried chicken and shrimp, rice, and a generically pan-Asian creamy coconut-chili-soy-peanut-lime sauce which, while possibly delicious, is similar to the original Sichuan bang bang chicken only in that they both contain chicken. I'm familiar with this strategy of ethnic-sounding-food-words cooption. I once worked for a similar chain restaurant where we served seared tuna with a "ponzu dipping sauce" made with sesame oil, soy sauce, and ginger, a far cry from true ponzu made with citrus juice and dashi. I lasted only a few months in that job.

True bang bang ji si gets its name from the sound that a mallet makes when beating the tough chicken breasts of yesteryear into tender submission before being dressed in a sauce flavored with Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, sesame seed, Chinkiang vinegar, and roasted chili oil. The flavor profile is not all that different from many other classic Sichuan appetizers like Sichuan wontons or Dan Dan noodles, but the real key is the texture of that chicken. Beating it is what allows it to absorb juices from the sauce, turning dry, tough meat moist and flavorful.

But here's the thing: We don't live in past-century Sichuan China. Our chickens have fatter, plumper, more tender breasts. We've got all kinds of newfangled precise cooking techniques, which means that for the most part, the actually banging part of bang bang chicken is nothing more than a relic of the past. Let's bring this dish into the modern age, shall we?

The Chicken

The other day I showed you how cooking your chicken in a sealed sous-vide style bag along with some aromatics can produce the moistest, tenderest, most flavor-packed chicken for your salad. The technique works wonderfully for this salad as well, with the added advantage that even the couple tablespoons of juice that get drawn out of the chicken during cooking get stirred back into the sauce, which means that you're nearing 100% on your flavor-extraction-efficiency scale.

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Cooking the chicken breasts directly in a bag with aromatics (I use scallions and ginger) guarantees ultra-moist and flavorful chicken without the need for any banging at all.

So long as you cook the chicken at 150°F in either a sous vide precision cooker or in a beer cooler with a thermometer, it will be as moist and tender as you could hope for. For this salad, I tear the chicken into shreds with my fingers (or more precisely, I ask my wife to as she excels at chicken-shredding).

The Sauce

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I've been playing around a lot with the method I use to make this classic Sichuan chili oil and vinegar sauce. My current favorite method is to break out the mortar and pestle, which helps bring out better flavor from all the aromatics as well as combining them into a neatly emulsified sauce. It's alway way faster and easier to clean than a food processor or spice grinder. I recommend this solid granite number which makes short work of the toughest grinding jobs.

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I start by grinding toasted Sichuan peppercorns to a fine powder before adding raw garlic, toasted sesame seeds, and a touch of sugar.

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Once that's been worked into a paste, I start adding in the liquid ingredients: sesame paste (preferably Chinese, though tahini works just fine), soy sauce, and Chinkiang vinegar, along with a good amount of chili oil with its ground chili sediment. If you don't have access to good Chinese chili oil, you can quite easily make your own at home by toasting a quarter cup of crushed Sichuan or Korean chilies in a microwave until fragrant (it takes about 15 seconds on a microwave-safe plate), then adding them to three quarters of a cup of neutral canola oil in a small saucepan and heating it just until it starts to bubble. Pull it off heat, let it rest, and you've got yourself some killer roasted chili oil.

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With a bit of pounding and stirring, the sauce should emulsify into a thick, creamy dressing that will perfectly coat the tender chicken. Once the chicken is cooked, I also stir in a couple tablespoons of its cooking liquid to thin the dressing out.

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As for the scallions, I like to cut them at a very strong bias with a sharp knife so that you end up with long, thin hairs of scallions that cling much better to the chicken when you toss the salad (check out this post on scallion-cutting knife skills for more details).

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Storing those scallions in ice water for a few minutes will make them crisp up and curl.

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Once the chicken is shredded, the dressing is made, and the scallions are sliced, all that's left to do is to toss it all together along with some whole sesame seeds (black sesame seeds if you want it to look cooler but taste pretty much the same).

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Drizzle on some extra chili oil at the end just before serving and you've got yourself the bangingest un-banged bang bang chicken around.