It’s easy to spot a tze char dish of gōng bǎo jī dīng (宫保鸡丁), or kung pao chicken as it’s popularly referred to in the West. There’s just so much to appreciate in this Chinese stir-fry, and I love absolutely everything about it -the fiery heat of fried Sichuan peppercorns and dried chillies, the nutty flavour and crunch of toasted (or fried) peanuts or cashew nuts, chunks of juicy, tender chicken with garlic and onion slivers, all tossed together in a fragrant and flavourful gōng bǎo sauce.
The key to a worthy gōng bǎo dish is a good gōng bǎo sauce. Gōng bǎo sauce is incredibly full-bodied – it’s spicy and salty with sweet and sour undertones, which makes it so deliciously appetising, I could lap this up with nothing else but plain cooked rice!
Preparing an authentic gōng bǎo sauce you can be proud of takes very little effort, and is fairly easy with just a handful of everyday ingredients or condiments you’re likely to have around in your pantry or larder. Once you’ve nailed down a good gōng bǎo sauce, you can easily cook up a gōng bǎo meat dish (with chicken being the popular choice) or a gōng bǎo seafood version with squid or shrimps.
It is said that to be true to the authenticity of this dish which originated in Sichuan province of China, Sichuan peppercorns are a must. The deep aroma, heat and characteristic flavour of Sichuan peppercorns are best released into the oils when fried gradually over low heat (as Sichuan peppercorns burn easily over high heat, turning bitter).
For a more intense flavour, you can leave some or even all the Sichuan peppercorns in the dish, for that extra spiced-up zing! There’s nothing quite like Sichuan peppercorns to give you that fiery, tongue numbing sensation which, rather than being off-putting, can become interestingly addictive! In the same oil, dried red chillies are also fried till fragrant, intensifying the heat and spicy flavour of the oils.
Traditionally, raw peanuts or cashew nuts which are almost always included in gōng bǎo chicken, are also fried in oil separately, but toasted, unsalted nuts are, in my humble opinion, just as good (and it helps me cut down on one more cooking step!). Raw peanuts or cashew nuts can be easily popped into your toaster oven, or dry fried in a wok or skillet until just fragrant and lightly browned, taking only a matter of minutes.
All that’s left for me to say is, a great gōng bǎo dish is simply irresistible and pleasurable to all who love delicate, yet bold flavours. Do have a go at this recipe and tell me what you think!
Gong Bao Chicken (Gong Bao Ji Ding)
- 3 chicken thighs, deboned
- 5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
- 1 tbsp minced ginger
- 1 stalk spring onion, chopped into sections
- 15 - 20 dried red chillies, cut into sections
- 1/2 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns
- 1/2 cup toasted cashew nuts (or peanuts)
- 1/2 cup cooking oil
For the Marinade:
- 2 tsp honey
- 1 1/2 tsp light soy sauce
- 1/2 tsp chicken seasoning powder
- 1/2 tsp pepper
- 2 tsp corn flour
For the Sauce:
- 3 tbsp black vinegar
- 1 1/2 tbsp light soy sauce
- 3 tbsp sugar
- 3 tbsp water
- 1/2 tsp sesame oil
- 1 - 1 1/2 tsp corn starch, mixed with 1 tbsp water
For Garnishing (optional):
- Some finely chopped spring onion
- Cut boneless chicken into 2-cm (1-inch) pieces. In a mixing bowl, combine marinade with chicken pieces and let marinate for 30 minutes.
- Cut dried chillies diagonally into big sections (using a pair of kitchen scissors), and remove the seeds. Dip into cold water and immediately drain. Set aside.
- In a mixing bowl, combine sauce ingredients and stir until sugar dissolves.
- Heat up 1/2 cup of oil in a wok over medium heat until moderately hot (about 160 - 170 deg C or 320 - 340 deg F). Fry chicken chunks in two batches, until chicken pieces are cooked and lightly browned. Scoop out with a perforated ladle and let drain on paper towels. Set aside. Drain the wok of oil, wash and dry the wok.
- Heat up 4 tbsp of oil in the wok over low heat. Fry the Sichuan peppercorns until fragrant, scoop out and discard (or set aside half for later). Fry dried chillies in the same oil until chillies expand and turn reddish brown in colour. Scoop out and set aside.
- In the same oil, fry garlic slices, minced ginger and chopped spring onion briefly until fragrant. Add sauce mixture (and half of the fried peppercorns if desired), and let simmer for a while, or until sauce is reduced to the consistency of a thin glaze. Add fried chicken pieces, fried chillies, toasted cashew nuts (or peanuts), and toss vigorously to evenly coat the chicken with sauce. Scoop out onto a serving dish, garnish with chopped spring onions, and serve immediately. Enjoy hot, with plain steamed rice.