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 Kung Pao chicken On request, a quick, simple method for my version of a classic Sichuan dish.
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Kung Pao chicken

One of the first hot-and-spicy Sichuan dishes I learned to cook, this fiery blend of bite-size chicken bits with soy-based and hot-chile flavors is fairly quick and simple to prepare, and it has been a favorite in our household ever since hot Sichuan (or Szechwan, depending on how your transliterate it) and Hunan cookery became a favorite across the U.S. years ago.

As a matter of fact, I learned the original recipe from Calvin B. T. Lee and Audrey Evans Lee's The Gourmet Chinese Regional Cookbook, which I eagerly snapped up upon its release in 1976, a year or so before the first Sichuan restaurant arrived in our town. I only later discovered that the version served in most restaurants seems, well, different, usually fashioned with a clear sauce and vegetables. That's OK, too, but the Lees' simpler version remains my "comfort food" standard for West China fare that's, well, too spicy for comfort.

I've simplified the recipe a bit over the years - "velveting" the chicken bits with egg white and cornstarch and deep-wok frying them in a whole cup of peanut oil seemed like an unnecessary waste of time and calories.

The Lees, by the way, wrote that "Kung Pao," or "viceroy," refers to an early Beijing diplomat assigned to Sichuan in the distant West and was delighted to discover this characteristic regional dish upon his arrival. If we have any Chinese scholars in the audience, I'd be delighted to learn more about the history and meaning of the term, which is also enshrined in a completely different recipe, Kung Pao shrimp.

The recipe calls for one or two ethnic ingredients. Hoisin sauce (a sweet, thick brown soybean-based sauce), is widely available in well-stocked groceries. Chinese hot brown bean sauce is a bit harder to find outside Chinatowns, but should be available in small cans in Asian markets in most larger cities. If you have to substitute, a blend of a little more hoisin sauce with hot sauce, even your basic Louisiana brand, should make a passable version if not an exact alternative.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1 good-size boneless, skinless chicken breast, about 10-12 ounces (350g), or equivalent in other boneless chicken meat
1 or 2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon (15g) Chinese hot brown bean sauce
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons Sherry
1 tablespoon white rice-wine vinegar
1 teaspoon white sugar
Dried red-pepper flakes
2 tablespoons water
2 - 3 tablespoons peanut oil
4 to 6 small whole dried hot red peppers
1/2 cup (125g) shelled roasted peanuts


1. Cut the chicken into bite-size (or chopsticks-size) cubes and set aside. This is probably as good a time as any to remind everyone that it's worth a little extra effort to practice kitchen sanitation when you handle raw chicken. Put it in a separate bowl and clean your hands, utensils and work area after handling, before you go on to do something else. There's no need to obsess, but a 24-hour bout with salmonella is a good thing to avoid.

2. Peel the garlic cloves and mince them fine.

3. In a small bowl, blend the minced garlic, brown bean sauce, hoisin sauce, Sherry, vinegar, sugar and dried red-pepper flakes to taste, adding a little water if necessary to yield a thin sauce about the texture of pancake batter. (I always keep an open bottle of good Sherry in the fridge for Chinese cooking - I like the stuff, so it's easy for me to buy a bottle, enjoy a glass and dedicate the rest to the Chinese pantry when supplies run low. If you don't have Sherry on hand, you can skip this step, and also substitute white or even cider vinegar for the rice-wine vinegar. But if you like to cook Chinese at home as much as I do, it's worth keeping at least a small selection of such goodies on hand.)

4. Put a wok or skillet on a burner over high heat until it's hot enough that a few drops of water bounce and "dance" on its surface before bursting into steam. Add the peanut oil and continue heating until it shimmers. Throw the whole hot red peppers into this very hot oil, then put in the chicken pieces and stir-fry quickly for a minute or so, just until they lose their raw color and start turning light brown. Reduce heat to medium-low, put in the sauce mix, and stir until it thickens and coats the chicken pieces and the garlic bits have cooked. Pour it into a warm serving bowl, garnish with the peanuts, and serve with plenty of steaming white rice and a salad or green vegetable.

Generally speaking, I recommend either cold beer or palate-soothing ethnic dairy drinks with fiery fare, although I mentioned this dish yesterday (and prompted several of you to ask for the recipe) in connection with my irreverent suggestion in The 30 Second Wine Advisor that the much-maligned fizzy red Italian Lambrusco makes an exceptional match with hot-and-spicy stuff. I've also found that Champagne and other sparkling wines fare well - perhaps because the prickly carbonation works in sparkling wines, as it does with beer, to quench the fire. Off-dry Riesling, Gewurztraminer or Chenin Blanc also seem to go relatively well with spicy Asian fare, if you must have wine.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of this recipe, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Kung Pao chicken,"

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Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives

Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Deviled eggs (Sept. 1, 2005)

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Thursday, Sept. 8, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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