Chengdu Challenge #13: Kung Pao Lotus Root (or Potato) (Gong Bao Ou Pian)
The Unbearable Easiness of Real Kung Pao~~
Everybody knows kung pao chicken—called gong bao ji ding in China—but did you know that you can kung pao other foods as well? My personal favorite vegetable given the gong bao treatment is lotus root, a mild, crunchy, stunningly beautiful vehicle for the mala-meets-sweet-and-sour sauce adorned with home-fried peanuts.
(Now, admittedly, fresh lotus root is somewhat difficult to find in the U.S. outside Asian markets, so feel free to substitute potatoes for an equally delicious if less photogenic dish using the exact same method.)
Whether chicken, pork or vegetable, gong bao is quite simple to make and for that reason is a dish I recommend to those new to Sichuan cooking. After you make it a couple times, gong bao doesn’t even require a recipe, because it is an easy equation: a mildly sweet-and-sour sauce + mala (dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns) + the Sichuan trinity (ginger/garlic/green onions) + fried peanuts + your main ingredient. Simple.
But, oh, do people try to make it hard. One experiences lots of extraneous ingredients and flavors in kung pao in the U.S., where cooks take great liberty with the name. The best recent example is a comically over-the-top recipe from Los Angeles cult chef Roy Choi’s (excellent and endearing) memoir/cookbook.
His recipe for Kung Pao Chicken Papi Style (he calls himself Papi) has 22 ingredients in the sauce alone, including oyster sauce, sambal oelek, chili oil, fish sauce, Mexican Cholula hot sauce, Korean red pepper paste, Korean red pepper flakes, Sriracha, jalapeño peppers, Thai basil, cilantro and lemongrass—all in addition to the soy sauce, vinegar and sugar you’d expect to find in the sauce. Plus there are 14 more ingredients that the sauce goes on!
Gong bao chicken is thought to be named after a Qing Dynasty governor of Sichuan, who might very well have banished someone who made his favorite dish with all those foreign ingredients. Choi’s version is probably tasty, but I’ll never find out when it’s so much easier to make the real deal.
I based this recipe on those for kung pao chicken after eating an inspiring gong bao lotus root at the wonderful Gu’s Bistro in Atlanta.
Because there are relatively few ingredients, it’s imperative that they all be right. It’s very tempting to use readymade roasted peanuts, but that would shortchange a dish whose distinguishing feature is its peanut flourish. Please do as the Sichuanese do and use raw peanuts that you fry to a golden finish yourself. It makes all the difference in the depth of flavor.
If you want to use Lotus root—and you should because there is not a more beautiful vegetable in all the world—try to get a fresh one, as the kind already sliced and sold in refrigerated bags tastes pretty much like cardboard. A fresh lotus root should be a light beige color with few black blemishes and, while mild in taste, should taste like a vegetable. A bit like jicama in texture and taste, it takes flavor better than it gives it.
I have a soft spot for lotus root and eat it as often as I can find a fresh one. (Try it thinly sliced and deep-fried like a french fry, then topped with salt and ground Sichuan pepper. YUM). I named my Sichuan tour business Lotus Culinary Travel not only because almost every part of the plant is eaten in Chinese cuisines, but because the lotus symbolizes how the most lovely of flowers/people can grow from the murkiest of waters/surroundings.
I hope that inspires you to try lotus root as you go forth and gong bao.
More on lotus root and amazing Chinese food TV
Lotus root is a culinary powerhouse, from the seeds that are ground into pastes for sweets to the leaves that are used to wrap food for cooking to the “roots” (actually underground stems, or rhizomes) that get stir-fried, boiled, braised and fried. And some people even consume the flowers. I thought I knew lotus root, but what I didn’t know is just how hard the artie veggie is to harvest, and therefore how valued it is for that reason as well.
The revelation came in A Bite of China, a seven-part documentary series made by Chinese CCTV in 2012, and the most ambitious food documentary I’ve ever seen. Big money and big production values went into telling the story of China’s natural food bounty and regional cuisines. Fortunately, some kind soul took it upon himself to translate and subtitle the series into English for the rest of us and put it on Youtube.
The film shows the lotus diggers boating out to desolate-looking fields of browning lotus plants—what is left after the water recedes from the lakes in early fall and leaves only the dense terrain of dying plants. Wading thigh-deep in gray mud, they hack away the plant and dig out the long links of lotus root, being careful not to bruise or break them as they load the massive rhizomes onto carts to be hauled away for washing and selling.
It’s heavy-lifting, dirty work, which may explain why we Americans don’t harvest our own lotus plants as food, even though the Native Americans made good use of this plentiful foodstuff. It turns out the American lotus, with its lovely white-yellow blooms, is the only first cousin to the Asian version, with its gorgeous pink blooms—and therefore would taste quite similar. Other than hard work, I can’t think of any other reason why we didn’t cultivate a taste for lotus root.
Lotus plants grew all around my daughter Fong Chong’s home on the rural outskirts of Guangzhou in southern China, though lotus is one of the few ingredients her foster family didn’t grow or forage themselves. Though her foster family was Buddhist, lotus stem was of much more comfort to FC culinarily than spiritually.
Like most Chinese, Fong Chong remembers lotus root fondly as an ingredient in soup, a crunchy complement to a meaty pork rib. I’ve seen them most often in Sichuan as one of the marinated cold dishes that start a meal. An especially memorable preparation—which I had once at Beijing’s Black Sesame Kitchen cooking school—is a lotus “sandwich,” two slices stuffed with a minced pork filling, coated with batter and deep fried. Such an unusual treat, experienced in the old hutongs of Beijing, was spiritually filling as well.
- 1 pound (400 grams) fresh lotus root or potato, peeled and cut in ¼-inch slices
- 3 green onions, coarsely chopped
- 1 tablespoon thinly sliced ginger
- 1 tablespoon thinly sliced garlic
- 12 medium-hot dried red chili peppers (preferably from Sichuan), cut in half
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons Zhenjiang black rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup raw peanuts (preferably skinless)
- Slice the lotus root, green onions, ginger and garlic. Cut the chili peppers in half, retaining the seeds. Keep lotus root slices in a bowl of cool water until time to cook them.
- In a small bowl or measuring cup, mix the sauce: vinegar, chicken stock, soy sauce, sugar, rice wine, cornstarch and salt.
- Heat wok until starting to smoke, add 2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil and heat until hot. Add peanuts, tossing and turning them in the wok until they are golden brown. If they brown too quickly turn down the heat. Remove and set aside.
- Drain the lotus root and pat it dry with a towel. Wipe out the wok and heat until wisps of smoke appear. Add enough oil to deep-fry the lotus root, or use less oil to shallow-fry them in two batches. Fry until just starting to brown on the edges. Remove and drain on paper towels.
- Pour out the oil, clean the wok and return to the heat until hot. Add one tablespoon oil, heat briefly, and add the chili peppers and Sichuan pepper. Stir-fry until fragrant, but do not brown or burn. Add green onions, ginger and garlic and stir-fry until just starting to soften.
- Return lotus root to wok, add the sauce and stir-fry briefly, until the flavors meld. Add the peanuts and mix them through the dish to warm them. When sauce has thickened and everything is hot, remove to a plate and serve.