Why It Works
- Dark-meat chicken is tossed in a marinade designed to optimize its natural meatiness and improve juiciness and browning characteristics.
- Stir-frying meat and vegetables in batches ensures that each is exposed to the maximum heat of the wok for better flavor and texture.
- Sweet, sour, and savory elements come together in the simple sauce.
As a kid my absolute favorite Chinese dish was takeout-style kung pao chicken. This dish has very little to do with the food I ate while traveling in mainland 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 it's fitting, as kung pao chicken, the Sichuan classic made with tons of hot dried chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, and peanuts in a vinegary sauce is the where this dish finds its roots.
Trade out most of the dried chiles 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. Here's how I make it at home.
Marinate the Chicken and Get it Brown
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.
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.
Stir-Fry Vegetables in Batches
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.
Once the vegetables are done, in go the peanuts. Traditional mainland 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 mainland Chinese recipe, and roasted peanuts straight off the supermarket shelf do just fine.
Add Aromatics, Not (Too Much) Heat
Now layer in the aromatics. They start with finely minced garlic, ginger, and scallions, the holy trinity of Chinese-American cuisine. I give the mixture a few tosses just so it loses its raw edge before adding in a handful of dried red chiles.
If you've ever eaten this dish at a Chinese-American restaurant, you'll know that it's hot in name only. There's not much heat to warrant the one red chile that gets printed on the menu next to the title. In this case, the chiles 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.
Coat in a Thick, Glossy Sauce
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.
Ok, a little gloppiness is ok. It's an essential part of the experience, right?
I get a little giddy when I see Chinese-American food like this. Don't get me wrong, I also get giddy when I see mainland 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.
- For the Chicken:
- 1 1/2 pounds (680g) boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 3/4-inch chunks (see note)
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) dark soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) Shaoxing wine (see note)
- 1/2 teaspoon (2.5g) sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) roasted sesame oil
- 1/2 teaspoon (1.25g) cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon (2g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or same weight
- 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
- For the Stir-Fry:
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) dark soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) distilled white vinegar
- 1 tablespoon (15g) sugar
- 2 teaspoons (5g) cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon roasted (5ml) sesame oil
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) vegetable, peanut, or canola oil, divided
- 1 large red bell pepper, cut into 3/4-inch dice
- 1 large green bell pepper, cut into 3/4-inch dice
- 2 stalks celery, cut into 3/4-inch dice
- 1/2 cup (100g) roasted peanuts
- 2 teaspoons (5g) minced fresh garlic (about 2 medium cloves)
- 2 teaspoons (5g) minced fresh ginger
- 1 scallion, white and light green parts only, finely minced
- 8 small dried red Chinese or Arbol chiles (see note)
For the Chicken: Combine chicken, soy sauce, wine, sugar, sesame oil, cornstarch, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl and toss to coat. Set aside for 20 minutes.
For the Stir-Fry: Combine chicken stock, soy sauce, wine, vinegar, sugar, cornstarch, and sesame oil in a small bowl and whisk together until homogenous. Set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a wok over high heat until smoking. Add chicken, spread into a single layer, and cook without moving until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Continue cooking, tossing and stirring frequently, until the exterior is opaque but chicken is still slightly raw in the center, about 2 minute longer. Transfer to a clean bowl and set aside.
Wipe out wok and heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil over high heat until smoking. Add bell peppers and celery and cook, stirring and tossing occasionally, until brightly colored and browned in spots, about 1 minute. Add peanuts and toss to combine.
Push vegetables up side of wok to clear a space in the center. Add garlic, ginger, scallions, and dried chiles and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Return chicken to wok and toss to combine. Stir sauce and add to wok. Cook, tossing, until sauce thickens and coats ingredients and chicken is cooked through, about 1 minute longer. Serve immediately.
If you can't find boneless skinless chicken thighs, you can debone them yourself using this guide. Shaoxing wine can be found in most Asian markets. If unavailable, dry sherry can be used in its place. If you can't find whole dried chiles, substitute with 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes.