Your Turn


Gulp!  After ordering Kung Pao Chicken many times over a decade or so of takeout, it finally is time for the blog to attempt this beloved Szechuan classic.  This is it, the course exam.  Will today’s offering be anything close to what professionals prepare every day in kitchens spanning the globe?

It might be, if the cook follows a good recipe, such as the one Epicurious features on its webpage.  The idea inspires a dish that matches the succulent, savory, slightly sweet and definitely spicy original.  Fortunately, Epicurious’s instructions deliver this and more, allowing us to enjoy at home something approaching what used to be available only by placing a phone call.

The secret, it seems, is Szechuan peppercorns.  The same peppercorns that made this summer’s hens flavorful and tingly also elevates Kung Pao Chicken to the unforgettable.  For decades, the US forbade import of the Chinese spice, denying North American cooks the opportunity to replicate fully many of the Szechuan table’s most memorable experiences.

Fortunately, US administrators recently eased this restriction and in so doing, opened taste buds to a more sophisticated element.  Without this positive development, one might have been reduced to patronizing the illicit peppercorn black market.  Does such a thing actually exist?  Possibly, as we are talking about food here, and nothing else is as important and as central to the human experience.

This isn’t to suggest that Kung Pao Chicken is dedicated entirely to delivering heat.  There’s no denying it’s a spicy dish, true, but Szechuan peppercorns take heat in a spirited, almost playful, direction and away from the blunt, unsophisticated realm of pure fire.

Not only that, but Kung Pao’s heat is only one part of its appeal, and the spice serves also, perhaps even mainly, to introduce the peanut, which is left intact.  This is in contrast to its being pulverized in most other Asian culinary applications.  It allows tasters to enjoy the almost satiny texture, and rich flavor, tying together the chicken and the peppers.

This recipe definitely passes the test, and allows this blog to offer the home version of a takeout favorite.  For one blissful meal, at least, it puts you on the same level as restaurant chefs.

*****

Kung Pao Chicken

For the marinade:

  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine (*1)
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed

For the sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon Chinese black vinegar (*2)
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon hoisin sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground Szechuan pepper (*3)
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 8 to 10 dried red chilles (*4)
  • 3 scallions, thinly sliced, white and green parts separated
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced or grated (*5)
  • 1/4 cup unsalted dry roasted peanuts

In a medium bowl, create the marinade.  Mix together the soy sauce, rice wine and cornstarch, until the cornstarch dissolves.  Add the chicken and stir it so the marinade covers each piece.  Set aside.

In another bowl, prepare the sauce.  Combine the vinegar, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, sugar, cornstarch and Szechuan pepper.  Stir until the sugar and cornstarch dissolve.  Set aside mixture.

Heat a wok over high heat, then add the peanut oil.  Add the peppers and fry them, stirring constantly, until the peppers are fragrant and begin to char, about 30 seconds.  Add the chicken and stir-fry until it is no longer pink, about three minutes.

Add the scallions, garlic and ginger, and stir-fry for about 30 more seconds.  Pour in the sauce and mix with the other ingredient, stirring so the sauce completely coats the chicken.  Stir in the peanuts and cook for a minute longer.  Transfer to individual plates, garnish with scallion greens, and serve.

NOTES:

1 – For such a small amount, I substituted sherry.  Not worth buying a whole new bottle of Chinese rice wine, and besides, I still have some sherry remaining from last month’s arroz con perdiz recipe.

2 – If you can’t find Chinese black vinegar, use balsamic vinegar instead.  Not quite the same, but close enough.

3 – Although Szechuan peppercorns make this dish what it is, if you can’t find them use a similar quantity of standard peppercorns and add a few drops of orange juice.

4 – You may want to remove the chiles just prior to service, sparing diners the trouble of picking around them.  While the chiles certainly are edible, eating them moves this dish into take-off-the-top of-your-head-hot territory.  If that’s your aim, by all means, leave the chiles in the dish.  With them, though, diners will taste little more than the heat.

5 – This translates into, roughly, a half-inch piece of ginger.

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3 thoughts on “Your Turn

  1. The Kung Pao Chicken looks mouthwatering. Is there a substitute for peanut oil? Otherwise, it’s a lovely recipe. Can’t wait for the next one.

    Liked by 1 person

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