Unlike many of the traditional Chinese dishes we feature, American-Chinese classics like Kung Pao Chicken actually have roots in honest-to-goodness Chinese cooking.
The Szechuan dish was named after Ding Baozhen, a governor of the province whose official title, “Gōngbǎo,” was bastardized in the trip across the pond to “Kung Pao,” because words are hard and these things happen, even to 19th century Szechuan governors who deserve better.
Truly authentic versions of the dish (a phrase we would never use to describe our variety of Chinese cooking) are made with fistful upon fistful of Szechuan peppercorns, which make the dish not just merely spicy, but also have a numbing, tingly effect, not unlike licking the business end of a 9-volt battery. As delightful as that sounds, their import ban until the mid-2000s still can make the peppercorns tricky to find in some parts of the country, so we’ll use more traditional dried chilies.
The finished product is pleasantly spicy, with a gorgeous glossy sauce and plenty of pop from the peanuts. Use raw, if you can find them, but don’t make a special trip: roasted (but unsalted) peanuts work just fine, too.
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 5 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
- 1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cubed
- 3 tablespoons white wine
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 3 tablespoons chicken stock
- 4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 3 tablespoons peanut oil
- 12–15 dried “japoneses” red chiles
- 5 scallions, white part only, thickly sliced crosswise
- 1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced
- ½” piece ginger, peeled and minced
- ½ cup unsalted roasted peanuts
- In a medium bowl, combine cornstarch and one tablespoon of the soy sauce, stirring until cornstarch is dissolved. Add chicken, toss well, and set aside to marinate while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
- Mix together the remaining 4 tablespoons of soy sauce, white wine, sugar, stock, vinegar, and sesame oil, and set aside.
- Heat peanut oil in a wok or large nonstick skillet over high heat until just beginning to smoke. Add chiles, half the scallions, garlic, ginger, and chicken and stir-fry until chicken is golden, 3-5 minutes. Add soy sauce mixture and stir-fry until sauce thickens, about 2 minutes. Stir in peanuts. Garnish with remaining scallions.