Chengdu Challenge #27: Gong Bao Chicken With Cashews (Gong Bao Ji Ding)

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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.

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Use a generous portion of nuts and Tianjin or, preferably, Sichuan chilies

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.

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Fry the fresh nuts until golden and toasty

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.

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A uniform size to the ingredients helps them all play nice in the wok

Chengdu Challenge #27: Gong Bao Chicken With Cashews (Gong Bao Ji Ding)
Author: 
 
Ingredients
  • 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
Instructions
  1. Marinate chicken cubes in 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine and ½ teaspoon salt.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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31 Responses

  1. Michael Whittall says:

    The blog is just great. Ever since you arranged a great tip to Sichuan a few yearrs ago I have followed you avidly. Please carry on the good work!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thank you, Michael! You guys were one of our very first and best clients. It means a lot to me that you’re still following all these years later.

  2. Barbara Lamb says:

    Oh boy! A few years ago I went to Chengdu and omg, what great food!!!! I want to make all of your recipes now but I don’t eat meat so I will substitute some things.

  3. Thanks for creating one of the best English language Sichuan resources on the web!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      And thank YOU for your comments over the past couple years.I appreciate your sticking around!

  4. sub says:

    One of my favorite dish !

    Try it once with one tablespoon of tian mian jiang in the sauce.

  5. JMNewman says:

    Would you like to write an article for the Chinese food magazine titled: FLAVOR AND FORTUNE; if so send it to PO BOX 91 Kings Park NY 11787; this magazine is coming to the end of its 23rd year; the first 19 are now free and available at: http://www.flavorandfortune.com the last four years still have hard copy and will get there when sold out.

    Jacqueline M. Newman, editor-in-chief

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Jacqueline! I know your amazing magazine, of course, and you even helped me once years ago with tracking down some obscure Chinese info. I can’t imagine there’s anything your publication hasn’t covered, but I’ll give it some thought. Thanks so much for the offer!

  6. kathleen divergilio says:

    in chengdu. eating up a storm. cooking class at museum of sichuan cuisine fantastic! trying desperately to locate the Cookbook from the culinary school….can you advise? thanks for all the recipes, have shared your site with friends here in chengdu.

  7. David Allen says:

    Hi I am new to the site but in the 2 months after finding the chilli oil recipe I have now explored most of your recipes and can happily inform you that all my friends are enjoying the fruits of my cooking your recipes as well lol Keep up the good work and I eagerly look forward to each new installment. Lots of love from 1770 Australia

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      I admit I had to Google 1770 Australia, but was happily surprised to see it is a town. So cool to hear you are cooking my recipes there. I’m glad you’re enjoying them. Thanks so much for writing!

  8. Jacq says:

    I am so grateful for the recipes you offer on you blog. I live in Qingdao and the only Chinese food I eat is Sichuan cuisine! Thank you for sticking with the blog!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Qingdao! Where there’s plenty of beer to cool down your Sichuan food. Always happy to hear from expats, and really appreciate your kind words.

  9. Jared says:

    The Best tip I ever learned about gong bao recipe, from NYT — always use an egg white as part of the shaoxing marinade. It creates a velvety texture you can’t get otherwise– I also dust the chicken pieces in cornstarch as a separate step before adding to marinade. http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/11619-gong-bao-jiding
    Also, do the chicken in batches if cooking larger amounts – turns out best when wok/oil heat stays very high- one layer of meat! Overcrowding kills this dish more easily than most.
    Totally agree- always use thigh meat.
    Personally, as I heat the wok initially, I add the dry sichuan peppercorns to toast them, then grind them to sprinkle in at the end, as a powder, using a sieve to remove the husks.
    Great post!!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      That’s a very odd recipe for gong bao ji ding: no dried chilies, no Sichuan pepper, and NO PEANUTS or nuts of any kind. But when I read the accompanying story, I realized it’s the version made in Guizhou. Interesting to know how different they are!

      I’l have to try it with egg white. And I agree about not overcrowding, though one pound (450 grams) of chicken should easily spread out in one layer in a wok without overlapping, and I wouldn’t recommend ever using more than one pound of meat in one dish.

  10. Rich Herold says:

    Thanks for the REALLY authentic version of gong Bao Ji ding – so similar to what the late great teacher, Fu Pei Mei, taught me in Taipei years ago. She used an additional ingredient: ‘dregs’ from the bottom of a soy sauce barrel. This was a concentrated syrup that added a wonderfully rich flavor to the dish. I used to buy it in the old days at Hsin Yi Road Market, but have never seen it in the USA. Any idea where this might be available?

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Wow, that sounds like an awesome secret ingredient! I have certainly never seen it in the U.S., but there aren’t many soy sauce makers here (that I know of). Maybe you can befriend someone at Wanjashan http://www.wanjashan.com/. 🙂 So glad you found the recipe to be like one you have great memories of.

  11. Jim Sweeney says:

    Another great dish, Taylor. Made this for two picky eaters on Friday and they gobbled it up. Next Saturday 6 friends are coming over and we are doing a “cook-off” between this and the Lao Gan Ma Black Bean Chicken. Can’t wait to see which one wins among my friends. Enjoy your travels and keep up the great work!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks, Jim! I’d love to know the results from your cook-off. Maybe you can substitute shrimp in one dish and let them both win. 🙂

  12. David Mann says:

    Looks similar to how I’ve been making it for a year or so after finding various recipes and guides online. One thing that stands out to me about your take on this recipe is the amount of vinegar. I usually use 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons per pound of chicken and just slightly less than a 1:1 ratio for the sugar (heaping tablespoon). Besides the peanuts, I think that the vinegar/sugar combo is what gives this dish its primary flavor. The lack of doubanjiang/tianmianjiang/douchi lets the sweet and sour flavor take center stage. I am going to up the vinegar a bit to see how it turns out.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi David,
      I probably do use more vinegar those most recipes. Sometimes gong bao dishes are quite sweet, but I personally prefer sour, so I err on the side of vinegar. To each his own gong bao. 🙂

  13. Amber says:

    We made this tonight for our Chinese exchange student and it was a great hit with her and with us! Excited to try more recipes!

  14. Richard Gemmill says:

    Dear Taylor,

    You are a breath of fresh air and somewhat of an answered prayer. 🙂 I have read these posts or blogs or whatever they are and find my mouth is watering for these delicious Sichuan treats. I am not sure how all this works (I am challenged in this arena, but I love Sichuan food. The other day I replied to you about Ganbian si ji Dou but I doubt you got it. I crave that dish as well. I have lots of questions to ask you, please tell me how I go about doing that! Best regards,

    Richard

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Richard. I can’t find your green bean questions, but feel free to email me at taylor @ themalaproject.com (no spaces). Or if you think others might benefit from your questions, it’s best if you comment on the actual post. Try again?

  15. Vince says:

    If I may say, please add my humble change to your recipe. Eliminate the salt in the sauce and in step 5 add 1 tablespoon of Pixian doubanjiang to the oil first, stirring constantly. The salt in the doubanjiang eliminates the need for it in the sauce. Once the oil is red, then add the la jiao (chili’s) and hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorns). This is how my wife’s family in Chengdu makes it.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Vince,
      That’s interesting. I’ve never seen a recipe for gong bao with doubanjiang in it, since it’s supposed to be a light sweet-and-sour sauce. But I’m sure there are a million ways to make it. And douban is never a bad idea. Thanks for the tip!

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Do you love Sichuan food and cooking as much as we do?

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive notice of new recipes and articles from the blog as well as occasional news and promotions from The Mala Market, our Sichuan specialty food shop. (An average of two emails total per month.)

 

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