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Food

Craving kung pao chicken? Here’s a foolproof recipe for the classic

Chengdu-style kung pao combines peanuts with chicken and chiles.
Chengdu-style kung pao combines peanuts with chicken and chiles.
(Yuki Sugiura / For The Times)

This is the kung pao chicken most of us know and love. Cubes of chicken breast, dried chiles, scallions, garlic, ginger and peanuts are coated in a silky sauce, with whole Sichuan peppercorns adding their signature tingling heat. It comes from Chengdu and is emblematic of the regional cuisine’s combination of sweet and sour, which is referred to as “lychee-flavored” because its flavor profile is reminiscent of the fruit. The blend of chile heat and tingling heat, known as ma la, also represents classic Chengdu cooking.

Here’s the complicated history of America’s most famous Chinese dish: kung pao chicken.

Chengdu-Style Kung Pao Chicken

Kung Pao Ji Ding 宫保鸡丁

20 minutes. Serves 4.

Ingredients
Marinated Chicken

  • 10 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast (1 large or 2 small), cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 1½ tablespoons potato starch
  • 2 teaspoons light soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt

Sauce

  • 2 tablespoons superfine or granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Chinkiang (Chinese black) vinegar
  • 1½ tablespoons homemade or unsalted store-bought chicken stock or water
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
  • ¾ teaspoon dark soy sauce
  • ¾ teaspoon potato starch

Stir-Fry

  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 12 dried Sichuan chiles, halved and seeded
  • 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
  • 3 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 5 scallions, white parts only, cut into ½-inch pieces
  • ½ cup roasted or fried unsalted peanuts

Instructions

  1. For the marinated chicken: Place the chicken in a bowl, add the potato starch, soy sauce, wine, salt and 1½ tablespoons cold water. Mix until evenly coated.
  2. For the sauce: Combine the sugar, vinegar, stock, sesame oil, both soy sauces and the starch in a small bowl. Stir until the sugar dissolves. If you dip your finger in, you should be able to taste the light sweet-and-sour, or “lychee,” base flavor of the dish.
  3. To stir-fry: Heat a well-seasoned wok, large cast-iron skillet or other large skillet over very high heat. Add the oil, carefully swirl to coat the bottom and sides, and immediately add the chiles and peppercorns. Stir-fry briefly, just until the chiles are fragrant and darkening but not burnt, about 15 seconds. Tip in the marinated chicken and stir to separate. As soon as the pieces have separated, add the garlic, ginger and scallion whites and stir-fry until they smell delicious and the chicken is just cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. Test a piece by cutting it in half to make sure.
  4. Pour the sauce into the center of the wok, wait for a second or two, then stir as the sauce thickens and coats the chicken, 1 to 2 minutes. Mix in the peanuts and serve immediately.

Adapted from “The Food of Sichuan” by Fuchsia Dunlop.


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