Chengdu Challenge #27: Gong Bao Chicken With Cashews (Gong Bao Ji Ding)
The Do’s and Don’ts of Kung Pao~~
The Mala Project turns two years old this month. It hasn’t made me rich or famous (far from!), but that wasn’t the goal. The immediate goal when I started it was to be a better mom to my immigrant daughter by being a better Sichuan home cook. I did it in blog form because I thought that if I committed publicly I’d be far more likely to stick with it.
And it worked! Two years on, I’m a much better Chinese cook and I’ve got a significantly happier Chinese daughter. Fong Chong still refuses to eat traditional American food, but her home, at least, tastes like China.
On top of that, in pursuing The Mala Project I got you. I don’t know what I expected when I started this, but I honestly didn’t expect the worldwide community of Sichuan-cuisine fans who have flocked to my blog with questions, comments, enthusiasm and encouragement. Without you I still would have been cooking Sichuan several nights a week, but I wouldn’t have expanded my repertoire as broadly or deeply or had the joy of sharing my adventures with mala lovers around the globe and hearing about yours in return. So thank you, dear readers, followers and commenters for taking this challenge with me and inspiring me to keep going.
(Oh, and if you follow The Mala Project only on FaceBook or Twitter, please consider signing up for my posts—rarely more than one a month—via email, since social media is very stingy in showing posts/tweets to followers.)
Having promised in my mission statement to look and cook beyond the usual Sichuan suspects, on the two-year anniversary I am nonetheless offering up the most obvious Sichuan dish of them all—gong bao ji ding, better known outside China as kung pao chicken. I’ve just assumed all along that the world doesn’t need another recipe for kung pao chicken. But as I looked more closely at a lot of the recipes out there I began to think it does, if only because of one secret I learned about making gong bao chicken from my friend Chef Qing Qing in Chengdu that is seldom seen in kung pao recipes in the West.
What is the most important ingredient in a gong bao recipe, the thing that distinguishes it from other mildly sweet-and-sour, mildly mala dishes? That would be nuts, and usually peanuts. So why are they always an afterthought in recipes? Toward the end of the ingredient list will be the call for 3 ounces (or maybe 1/3 cup or 3 tablespoons) (pre-)roasted peanuts, which you will be instructed to toss in at the end of the stir-fry.
But I think that misses the point of the dish. In Sichuan, I learned that the first and most important step is to start with raw peanuts and fry them yourself until golden brown. It makes all the difference in the dish, because freshly cooked peanuts taste more fresh, more toasty, more peanuty, and don’t taste like you’ve tossed your freebie airplane snack into your otherwise lovingly constructed dish.
A couple of other things about the traditional recipe that I feel less strongly about: The chicken bites—always dark meat in Sichuan—should be small, in the realm of the size of the peanuts and chili peppers, not large and chunky. And though, like all Americans, I’m guilty too of trying to make any dish into a one-pot meal, there really shouldn’t be a lot of extraneous ingredients in there like bell peppers and celery (unless you love those ingredients, then, by all means, add them).
One change I do like to make to the classic gong bao, as Sichuanese themselves sometimes do, is substituting cashew nuts for peanuts—fried the exact same way!—because I love the contrast of the rich, buttery nut with the slightly acidic sauce. It’s the luxury version of gong bao.
As I’ve previously discussed, you can gong bao many things—my take on gong bao lotus root is here. You can also substitute shrimp to delicious effect. Just remember that different ingredients and amounts of ingredients might necessitate different amounts of sauce, which you can judge as you are adding it in at the end. There shouldn’t be pools of sauce on the plate, but you also don’t want to be stingy with this genius concoction. I use more sauce than many recipes. And more chili peppers, of course.
- 1 pound dark-meat chicken, cut in ½-inch cubes
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup fresh cashews (or fresh skinless peanuts)
- 4 tablespoons Zhenjiang black vinegar
- 4 tablespoons chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 12 (or more) dried medium-hot chili peppers, preferably Sichuan, large ones snipped in half
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 6 scallions, cut in ½-inch lengths, whites and greens separated
- 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped ginger
- 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
- Marinate chicken cubes in 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine and ½ teaspoon salt.
- Heat wok until hot and add 3 tablespoons peanut or canola oil. When oil is hot, turn heat to low, add nuts and gently stir-fry until toasty brown all over. Watch closely so they don't burn. Remove from wok and let drain on paper towel. They will firm up and become crunchy when cool.
- Mix sauce ingredients together in a measuring cup: Zhenjiang vinegar, chicken stock, light soy sauce, sugar, 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine, cornstarch, and 1 teaspoon salt.
- Clean wok and return to heat. When wok is hot, add 2 tablespoons oil, swirl around the pan, and when you see smoke begin to rise, add the chicken cubes. Spread the chicken out around the wok, and let the pieces sear on one side. Flip the chicken and let sear on the other side. Stir-fry until chicken is cooked through and lightly browned. Remove chicken from wok and let drain on a paper towel.
- Clean work and return to heat. When wok is hot, add 3 tablespoons fresh oil and heat briefly on a medium flame. Add chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns and stir-fry vigorously, toasting but not burning them. Add the scallion whites, ginger and garlic and stir-fry until fragrant.
- Add back the chicken cubes and toss in the scallion greens. Stir-fry briefly and mix well. Add the sauce and mix well. As the sauce thickens, add back the cashew nuts and stir-fry briefly until all ingredients are well combined. Plate and serve.