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Kung pao chicken, or gong bao ji ding in Mandarin pinyin, needs no introduction. A usual suspect on every Chinese-restaurant menu in the U.S., this dish has become almost as American as pie (which, by the way, is originally Dutch). However, the gloppy chicken dish often bears little resemblance to its drier, not-as-sweet Chinese ancestor.
U.K.-based Chinese food expert Fuschia Dunlop offers the true Chengdu version in In Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking; it has a kick of charred dried chilies, tingle of Sichuan peppercorns, and a light film of subtle sweet-sour sauce. She also uses the pinyin spelling “gong bao” instead of “kung pao,” explaining that the dish is named after Ding Baozhen (his official title was "Gongbao"), a late Qing Dynasty governor of Sichuan province who was particularly fond of this dish. On the other hand, Cecilia Chang, founder of San Francisco’s Mandarin Restaurant, claims kung pao “loosely translates as ‘hot firecrackers’ because pao sounds like ‘pop, pop, pop’.”
Like names, the ingredients also vary: dry sherry versus Shaoxing cooking wine, rice vinegar versus black Chinkiang, yes to green bell peppers, the absence of Sichuan peppercorns. When I was growing up in Singapore, Kung Pao Chicken was simply called “Szechwan” chicken with dried chilies, and arrived without peanuts. This version is validated by Florence Lin’s Chinese Regional Cookbook. Lin writes that minus the peanuts, it is called Boneless Chicken with Hot and Sour Sauce, a dish beloved by General Tsu of Hunan. (I think she may have gotten it mixed up with General Tso’s Chicken.)
And then there are the substitutes. I’ve seen recipes suggesting pork and beef as alternatives over the years. Recently, plant-forward recipes using Portobello mushrooms and cauliflower have emerged. If I’m honest, my favorite is the “Kung Pao Potato” recipe from my latest cookbook Farm to Table Asian Secrets—Vegan and Vegetarian Full-Flavored Recipes for Every Season. No bias here, of course. I borrowed a tip from Kenji J. Lopez’s breakfast hash recipe by par-cooking the potatoes in vinegar-spiked water to produce cubes that were firm on the outside yet fluffy on the inside. The potatoes stood up to the second cooking stage—the stir-frying—and didn’t fall apart in the pan.
However you choose to kung pao, savor every single bite!
- 1-1 1/4 pounds (500 g) yellow gold potatoes (5 to 6 medium), peeled and cut into ¾-in (2-cm) cubes and submerged in cold water to prevent browning
- 2 tablespoons white distilled vinegar
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt or sea salt
- 1 teaspoon potato starch or cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon potato starch or cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 tablespoon Chinese cooking wine or dry sherry
- 1 tablespoon Chinkiang black vinegar or balsamic vinegar
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 4-8 dried red chilies, heads snipped and seeds shaken out if desired
- 1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns, crushed with a mortar and pestle
- 3 cloves garlic, minced garlic (1 tablespoon)
- 1 tablespoon (chubby 1-inch knob) fresh ginger, peeled and minced
- 2 (1/2 cup) scallions, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup (100 g) roasted peanuts