Kung Pao

During the Qing Dynasty, Beijing’s finest kitchens were peopled with chefs from various parts of China. So, while this is a Sichuan recipe, it was developed in the home of a Mandarin noble, Ting Kung-Po. The chicken is stir-fried quickly, the mixed with crispy groundnuts (peanuts) and a spicy sauce for contrast.   –The Chinese Gourmet (William Mark), p. 127

Over the last several months, my wife has occasionally ordered Kung Pao Ji Ding from the area restaurants and lamented how overly sweet and gloppy the sauce for this dish was.  After our last outing, I decided to go back and see if we couldn’t do better at home.  Some web research suggested things like hoisin and oyster sauces for making this dish and realized how sweet those could potentially be.  Fortunately, William Mark’s book contained a straight forward recipe for this dish.  The recipe from that book seemed very much like an ‘origin’ recipe. The ingredient list was as follows:

a cast of kung pao seasonings

For the marinade
1 T light (usukuchi?) soy sauce
1 T dark soy sauce
1 t sugar
1 t chinese rice wine (sake?)
2 t corn starch

a little sugar….

 

a little rice wine (sake, in this case)

some soy sauces for the marinade for a little salt and umami

a touch of cornstarch to coat the chicken

For the chicken
2 large chicken breasts – here I opted for 1 lb (4) boneless, skinless thighs cut into 1/2″ cubes
3 T roasted skinless peanuts

my better half taking over the chicken cutting process

Getting the chicken into the ‘marinade’ ingredients

 

chicken hand mixed into the marinade ingredients

portioning out the peanuts

For the sauce
1 fresh red chili, seeded, (de-ribbed?), chopped into 1/2″ pieces
2 dried red chilis chopped into 1/2″ pieces (seeds removed)
2 garlic cloves chopped
1 T hot fava/broad bean paste ( tobanjang )
1 t sugar
1 t szechuan peppercorns (ground)
2 scallions, derooted, cleaned, cut into 1″ lengths
1/3 c chicken broth (I opted for Iron Chef Chen’s chicken stock)

1 t chinese rice wine (sake?)

1/3 cup of Iron Chef Chen’s chicken stock was plenty to make this kung pao ‘sauce’

 

The recipe instructs that the marinade and chicken chunks be mixed well together and let sit for 30 minutes before cooking.   That means the sauce could be prepared in two containers –

2 fresh chilis

fresh chilis cut up into equi-sized pieces

1 fresh red chili, seeded, (de-ribbed?), chopped into 1/2″ pieces
2 dried red chilis chopped into 1/2″ pieces (seeds removed)
2 garlic cloves chopped – so I approached this as grated garlic like Nobu

oven dried chilis at 120 F for 4hrs on convection mode

rings of dried chilis (de-seeded) for the dish

2 large garlic cloves grated came to 1/2 tablespoon, being kept company by the cleaned scallions

 

scallions and ginger ready to go

1 T hot fava/broad bean paste (tobanjang)
1 t sugar
1 t szechuan peppercorns (ground)

hot/spicy fava bean paste (aka tobanjan)

 

a little sugar to go with the tobanjang

a little szechuan peppercorn….

…ground to temper the spices

To actually make the dish:

  • the chicken would be seared in a preheated wok which then had oil added to it and then removed from the wok.

Searing the ‘marinated’ chicken cuts

  • 2 tablespoons of oil would be added to the wok and the chilis and the garlic would be stir fried for 30 secs

out went the seared chicken and in went the chilies and the garlic

  • the tobanjang , sugar and ground szechuan peppercorns would be added (so now a hot and spicy sauce is in the pan)
  • The chicken would be re-added back to the wok at high heat to vigorously stir fried for about 30 seconds and then the  stock would be added and the whole thing would be simmered for a few minutes

…and then in went the stock, scallions and peanuts. Like Iron Chef Chen’s mapo tofu and chili shrimp this process went lightening fast

  • then the scallions and peanuts would be added to stir fried for another 30 seconds
  • Just before serving one more splash of rice wine/sake would be added.

Presumably, the cornstarch on the chicken combined with the broth and seasonings would create the ‘sauce’ for the dish.

The completed dish

 

By comparison, Chef Ming Tsai’s version of Kung Pao from Simply Ming: One Pot Meals (p. 36,37) calls for [microbatch version]:

1/2 T sugar
1 T sambal
2 T soy sauce
1/2 T sesame seed oil
zest & juice of 1/2 lemon
1 lb dark meat chicken (thigh/drumstick)
1/8 cup (2T) cornstarch
kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
2 1/2 T grapeseed or canola oil
1 1/2 T minced garlic
1 1/2 T minced ginger
1/2 t coarsely ground szechuan peppercorns
1 c carrot nubs
2 1/2 celery stalks (1/2″ dice)
1/2 c unsalted roasted peanuts

His sauce combines sugar, sambal, soy, sesame oil, lemon zest and juice.  Interestingly, it’s nearly the same amount of sugar for both versions.

Like the William Mark version, he coats his chicken with cornstarch (seasoning it with salt/pepper). Chef Tsai instructs that the chicken pieces are cooked two batches (2 lbs of chicken as opposed to this microbatch) using 2T of oil (for each batch). The chicken is cooked at high heat about 3-4 minutes and then set aside.

The ginger, garlic, peppercorns are sauteed in about 1 T of oil for about 30 secs and then the carrots,
celery and peanuts are added, all to be stir fried for about 2 minutes to combine the flavors. The sauce is then added and when it comes back to a simmer, the chicken is added and combined to the stir fry.

When we tasted this dish from William Mark’s specified recipe, my wife exclaimed that “THIS is the kung pao chicken I had back home!”  So I guess she was extremely happy.   My take on this dish was that the sweetness of the sugar was barely detectable and was there, presumably, to round out the sharpness of the chili’s while the szechuan peppercorns were there to tamp down the bite.   If I were to make this again, I think I’d reduce the tobanjang down to half in the presence of the other chilis.

I’ve noticed references to other kung pao variants on the web.  In reflecting on this dish, I could see doing this with scallops, shrimp, beef, etc.  For things like seafood, I imagine I would sear the deep sea scallops like any dish and then apply the sauce to it. That’s to say, I’d mix the marinade into the chili/garlic/tobanjang/sugar infused oil and THEN add the chicken stock, szechaun pepper, peanuts, and scallion.  After that, I would toss the scallops in the mix and serve.  I would probably handle jumbo shrimp and tofu probably the same way.  Other proteins I would probably handle in the same manner as I did the chicken.

This was a really good exercise in understanding food history and how much kung pao had evolved from Szechuan to these United States.  I would be really curious to see the result of adding Iron Chef Chen’s twist on this with the application of ketchup as in his Chili Shrimp.

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