Kung Pao Creation Myth


The finished dish, still steaming hot in the wok. Note that there is not much sauce; what is there clings tightly to the ingredients, and does not pool in the wok.

We ate some of the chili last night. I made a mistake in forgetting that frozen chiles are much more hot than fresh or dried; I suspect that the really large ice crystals that form when the water in the cells of the fruit is frozen in a home freezer puncture all of the cell walls, thus releasing much more capsaicin than normally would be the case in normal cooking.

The upshot is that the two jalapenos and one chipotle were too many chiles for a large pot of chili. Which is not usually the case. Zak could barely eat it, and while I could eat it, I didn’t enjoy it at all; the flavors of all the other ingredients were overpowered by the chiles.

So, later in the week, another pot will be made, this time with roasted -fresh- peppers.

Zak made an interesting comment; he is able to eat much spicier Asian foods than Mexican; when I make Thai food or certain Sichuan dishes, they are actually much spicier than the chili was last night. Zak thinks it is because you eat rice with it, thus muting the heat; I think that is true, but it also has to do with the cooking method.

Most Mexican foods are stewed, which mingles flavors, while many Asian foods are stir-fried, which keeps flavors separate and distinct. Thus, there are many more discernable flavors going on in your average Thai or Chinese stir-fry than in your average Border cuisine such as chili, which has been simmered slowly for a long time.

Which leads me to the topic for today–Kung Pao Chicken.

Kung Pao Chicken is a perennial favorite at my dinner table; in fact, when my daughter, Morganna first broke out her new wok, it was the very first recipe she chose to cook in it, on her own, without help from Mom.

I am so proud of her.

I first fell under Kung Pao Chicken’s spell when I worked at Huy and Mei’s place; as is often the case, the first version I tasted is the one I wish to recreate in my kitchen. Huy made it very spicy, with many dried chili pepper pods scattered through the dish. He used celery and water chestnuts with the chicken, and there was a minimum of sauce clinging to the meat and vegetables, with no hoisin sauce in evidence. It was a very fiery, minimalist presentation.

After we moved to Athens, Ohio, I came to love a version created at my favorite Chinese restaurant there–China Fortune. They used a mysterious pale green vegetable that was tender-crisp and mildly flavored. Years later, when I was peeling broccoli stalks to add to cream of broccoli soup, I popped a sliver of it in my mouth and realized what those unidentified celedon-tinted vegetables were–peeled and sliced broccoli stalks. Ever frugral, the chef had used what many Americans throw away, along with onions, green bell peppers, celery and water chestnuts, to add further texture and flavor to the spicy chicken dish.

I have since used both broccoli stalks and kohlrabi to great effect as a vegetable in kung pao chicken dishes, though my favorite of all is fresh water chestnuts. These days, I use what I have and don’t fret about it–I think that most vegetables that are presented in the dish in the United States are not “traditional.” I am fairly certain that they exist as filler material; from what I can gather from my study the original dish, which hails most likely from Sichuan province, though Hunan province also claims it, the main ingredients are simply diced chicken breast and peanuts seasoned with dried chilis and Sichuan peppercorns.

As I cooked my version of Kung Pao a few days ago, I began to wonder about the origin of the dish. I had just recieved a copy of Henry Chung’s Hunan Style Chinese Cookbook, by the proprietor of what is popularly believed to be the first Hunan restaurant in the United States, “Henry’s Hunan” in San Francisco. As I was looking through this widely acclaimed out-of-print volume of recipes, I came across a recipe for Kung Pao chicken, along with the author’s assertion that it was named for a famous Hunan general, General Tso, because it was created by accident when his little son playfully threw a handful of dried peppers into the wok while the chef was cooking a dish of diced chicken. They singed and flavored the entire dish with the smoky fire of the peppers, but the General liked it so much that the dish became known by his official title, Gong Bao, or Kung Pao.

There is a real dearth of Hunan cookbooks printed in English (Fuchsia Dunlop is apparently working on one, bless her); Henry Chung’s is widely considered to be the best of them, so I have no reason to doubt his assertions. The minimalist approach of his recipe does seem quite in line with the authentic Sichuan recipes for the dish I have cooked and read from such authors as Dunlop and Ellen Shrecker, author of Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook, another out-of-print gem.

Dunlop adds Sichuan whole peppercorns to her version, which adds a fragrant touch, while Mrs. Chiang, Shrecker’s cook and inspiration, used both fresh and dried chile peppers in order to make a very incendiary version of the dish. All of these versions, however, focus on the three main ingredients: chicken, peanuts and chile peppers, even as they each tell different origin stories regarding the creation of the dish.

The generally accepted tale involves either a general or a public official of some sort who loved the fiery dish and so it came to have his name. It is not unusual for Chinese dishes to be named for the epicure whose sensitive criticism involving the dish was involved in the creation and refinement of the dish by the (usually) unnamed chef. Dunlop’s rendition of the tale names the man as a late Qing dynasty official (late 19th century), Ding Baozhen, who was the governor of Sichuan province. She gives three possible origins for the dish: one possibility is that it was brought by Ding’s cook from their home province of Guizhou, another is that he ate it in restaurants where he dressed as a commoner in order to experience the lives of his subjects, and another story relates that his chef invented it because the governor’s teeth were so bad that he couldn’t chew anything that wasn’t cut into a small dice or mince. (That seems highly unlikely, however, as peanuts, a necessary ingredient, are not easy to chew with weak teeth.)

She goes on to inform us that while the dish continues to be popular in China, during the Cultural Revolution, it was renamed by radicals to “Gong Bao Ji Ding,” (Fast Fried Chicken Cubes) or “Hu La Ji Ding,” (Chicken Cubes with Seared Chiles) in order to disquise its unpopular affiliation with an Imperial bureaucrat. (Page 238, Land of Plenty, Fuchsia Dunlop.)

An online source gives the following explanation:

“One of the most famous Chinese dishes and a perennial foreigner favorite is Kung Pao Chicken (gongbao jiding). This dish first became popular in Sichuan and its legendary origin is a good example of the willingness of Chinese chefs to improvise. According to the legend, this dish is named after Ding Baozhen, who served under the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) Emperor Xianfeng as the governor of Shandong province. One day he arrived East China’s home with asgroupsof friends, but his cook hadn’t prepared for guests, and had but a meager chicken breast and some vegetables in the kitchen. The cook diced the chicken//into//tiny bits, and fried it up with cucumber, peanuts, dried red peppers, sugar, onion, garlic, bits of ginger – sundry ingredients that had been lying around the bottom of the cupboard.

Ding Baozhen and his guests really enjoyed the improvised meal, so much so that it became a regular item on the menu. Eventually, Ding Baozhen was promoted to Governor General of Sichuan Province, and his cook went with him to Sichuan//where//he began experimenting with the local product, including hot broad bean sauce and Sichuan chili peppers. Soon the humble chicken dish was all the rage in the province. The people honored Ding Baozhen by naming the dish after his official name, Gongbao. The moral of this story: If you work hard at your craft, like Ding Baozhen’s chef, one day a dish will be named after your boss.”

Of course, my favorite part is the moral of the story. It is typical for dishes in many cuisines to be named in honor of someone else rather than the chef who created them. Think of the dessert, Pavlova, or Beef Wellington. No, the great dancer was not making fruit-filled meringue baskets on her day off, nor was the strategist of Waterloo down in the kitchen wrapping a tenderloin with pastry. Someone else did the creation; I suppose it is a testiment to the humility of chefs that they are content with making masterpieces that are remembered by other people’s names.

At any rate, though my intellectual curiousity is piqued by the idea of where Kung Pao Chicken came from and I will likely keep doing research to see what I can dig up, what matters most to me is the flavor. That is the heart of why the dish is so popular in both China and the United States–because it is a satisfying collection of contrasting colors, aromas, textures and flavors that come together into a glorious whole.

Here is my recipe for Kung Pao Chicken, as I cooked it last week. The vegetables are a matter of personal preference and availability. I happened to have jalapenos and baby carrots around that night, so that is what I used. If I had water chestnuts and kohlrabi sitting in the fridge, that is what I would have used. Just make sure and cut them so that they match the diced chicken in size and approximate shape.

This is an adaptation of several recipes, including both Dunlop and Mrs. Chiang’s recipes, as well as the recipes I have deconstructed from several restaurants. You will note that I added a teaspoon of hoisin sauce; while it is not traditional, as near as I can tell, many Chinese restaurants in the US add it to their Kung Pao. Zak likes the flavor, so I use just enough to give it the essence of hoisin without turning the dish into a sweet, gloppy, overly sauced mess.

You will also note that I grind the Sichuan peppercorns. That is because I adore the flavor, but I don’t like the texture of the whole ones in a stir-fried dish.


The ingredients for Kung Pao Chicken sit close at hand while the wok heats up.

Kung Pao Chicken

Sauce Ingredients:

2 tsp. raw or brown sugar
1 tsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. dark soy sauce
1 tsp. light soy sauce
3 tsp. Chinkiang black rice vinegar
1 tsp. hoisin sauce
1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp. chicken broth

Ingredients:

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts cut into 1/2″ cubes
2 tsp. light soy sauce
1 1/2 tbsp. Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
2 1/2 tsp. cornstarch
Peanut oil or canola oil for stir frying
1 tsp. freshly ground Sichuan peppercorns
6-10 dried red Chinese peppers*
4 cloves of garlic and an equal amount of fresh ginger, both peeled and thinly sliced
3 scallions, white and light green parts, sliced into chunks as long as their diameter (to match the chicken cubes)
1 or 2 jalapenos, cut into thick slices about the size of the chicken cubes
handful of baby carrots cut into round thick slices to match chicken cubes
2/3 cups dry roasted unsalted peanuts

Method:

Mix together sauce ingredients well and set aside. I like to use a small measuring cup for this, so I can tell how well mixed it is, and so it is easily poured into the wok when the time comes.

Mix together chicken and next three ingredients–set aside to marinate while you are cutting up vegetables.

Heat oil in the wok, and when it is nearly smoking, add Sichuan peppercorns and chiles. Stir and fry until very fragrant. Add chicken, and settle into a single layer on the bottom of the wok. Allow to begin browning without stirring–about 30 seconds to one minute. Stir and fry. Add garlic and ginger, and jalapenos if you are using them. Stir and fry until the chicken is nearly done.

Add carrots and stir and fry until chicken is done. Pour in sauce ingredients, bring to a boil, and cook until it clings to all ingredients. Add peanuts and toss to coat.

* I use Tien Tsin dried chilis from Penzey’s. They are wickedly hot little buggers, and I love them. To keep them fairly mild, use them whole. To make them a little hotter, snip them and sprinkle the seeds out, but expose the placental membranes where most of the capsaicin lives. For the hottest effect, snip them open and let the seeds fall into the wok and carry their heat all over the dish. If you are using fresh chiles as well, cut down on the number of the dried chiles. That is, unless you want to hurt your guests, in which case, use the maximum number of dried chiles with the seeds running loose and throw in four or five sliced jalapenos.

11 Comments

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  1. I just finished your excellent “quick and dirty” rundown of soybean pastes. After perusing your link to the above Kung Pao(I, too love Fuscia Dunlop!), I must offer kudos on your attempts to keep this dish as true as possible to it’s roots.
    Many are the takeout joints taking pains to remove the essential “kungpao-ness.” I’ve encountered divers bizarre and dumbed-down versions over the years; some I’ve specified “spicy” only to find a few desultory chile flakes swimming in brown, sweet glop. Some, more green bell pepper! than sauce.
    I’m of the camp that it’s not kung pao unless the preperation includes whole, smoky, dry-fried dry red chiles. I nibble them throughout. I look forward to trying your permutation(including Hoisin) next time I make it. BTW: China Fortune is a favorite restaurant memory. Excellent kung pao :) and the woman at the front of the house(unfortunately, I forgot her name) was always so sweet to me. Long ago she comped me a lunch after I’d taken a long absence from school. How’s that for customer appreciation?

    Comment by Christopher Gordon — March 7, 2006 #

  2. Annie is her name! She is lovely–and a dear, dear lady. And yes–she is always nice to her regulars. She is the first person to give me steamed buns to eat, years ago–they had made some in the kitchen for the staff, and she came out with some for our table, and never charged us. When we used to work long hours at Grade A Notes (Yes, I was one of the copy-gnomes who worked there), and we would order take out for dinner, she would send us a bag of almond cookies for dessert for free–because she knew we were working long hours after the store closed to make all the course packets. She knew we were still there long after she and her staff had gone home, so, she was always nice to us. She’d give us lots of tea, too.

    Bad kung pao is awful. Too sweet, sticky with sugar, no spice, gloppy sauce, wilty vegetables, a whisper of peanuts….ick The worst is too much hoisin sauce–ARGH! I hate that flavor when that is all there is to it. It makes me shudder to think of it.

    Comment by Barbara — March 7, 2006 #

  3. Thank you so much for allowing me to place her friendly face with her name. Annie, yes. There was always something a little bit magic about China Fortune. What they did they did(do?) well. Grade A Notes! I always imagined that was a ton of work :). A quick question: in your Kung Pao, when you grind the szechuan peppercorn, how fine do you grind it and does it completely disappear into the sauce leaving only an ephemeral je ne sais quoi? Or, is the SP pronounced? I’ve eaten SP raw so I’m familiar with its properties, but am unsure, in this instance, what the balance should be. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher Gordon — March 8, 2006 #

  4. China Fortune is still open–they moved over to Stimson, though, because they got evicted–after twenty years renting up there–because the owner wanted to turn that area into apartments. And he did.

    But they gave them like two months notice to move everything out and find a new place to open. Annie was quite rightly upset.

    Grade A Notes is known to those of us who worked there together as “copy hell.” Nuff said.

    As for the sichuan peppercorn in my kung pao–I grind it quite finely–into a powder, but the flavor does not disappear. Far from it–the main attraction in my kung pao is the synergy between the sichuan peppercorns and the fresh and dried chiles. The former has that tingly-cold heat and the latter the fire that one would expect, with the middle providing a hint of bittersweet. Then, the vinegar and hoisin sauce make everything come together, and the peanuts add crunch.

    Give it a shot–I think you will like it.

    Comment by Barbara — March 9, 2006 #

  5. My favorite kung pao’s (Chef Peking in Rockville MD, Szechuan Best in Randallstown outside Baltimore) used a fair amount of hoisin sauce.

    I don’t mind too much hoisin in kung pao so much as too little flavor except for the chilis.

    Comment by Andy — July 26, 2007 #

  6. This Kung Pao (like so much of Barbara’s creative endures) is just delicious. Like Barbara mentions in a previous post, this recipe has synergy between the spicy elements, and a great complexity of flavors as well. I found it WONDERFUL, and was thrilled and amazed that it came out of my own wok. Thanks, again, Barbara…!

    Comment by Todd — August 30, 2007 #

  7. Thank you, Todd!

    Andy–I have never eaten at either of those restaurants, but I might try them the next time I am in the Baltimore/Washington area.

    I don’t like kung pao that is just hot, either.

    Comment by Barbara — August 31, 2007 #

  8. I recently cleaned out my refrigerator and pantry, and threw away a number of ingredients that were past their prime. On observing the stuff I was throwing away, I realized that I have not been cooking many Asian meals – despite the fact that they are usually easy to put together and I generally love the flavors. So, after doing some research, I found your blog, and used your Asian Pantry information to restock.

    I made your Kung Pao this evening. Since you gave us the flexibility to fiddle with the veggies, I used water chestnuts and red bell pepper… because that’s what I was in the mood for.

    The flavor was excellent – better than I’ve had in any restaurant! And better still because I had control of the oil and other fats going into the recipe. I’m going to enjoy cooking from your blog! Thanks.

    Comment by Holly V in KC — October 9, 2007 #

  9. Holly–I am thrilled that it worked beautifully for you.

    I have spoiled my family cooking Chinese food at home. Now, unless we are someplace with a really good restaurant, it is hard to get Chinese food we really like in a restaurant.

    I think that once you start cooking some of your favorite dishes at home, you will come to the same conclusion. And once you get the hang of Chinese cooking techniques, it will become like second nature to cook food better than you get in a restaurant…and as you noted–it is healthier, too.

    Many Chinese restaurants oil blanch their meats–which raises the fat content of the dish sky high. At home, I always dispense with that step, and have found that I like the results better skipping it–the meals are much lighter and more flavorful without excess oil clouding things up.

    Comment by Barbara — October 9, 2007 #

  10. [...] Kung Pao Chicken (recipe adapted from Tigers & Strawberries blog by Barbara Fisher) [...]

    Pingback by Kung Pao Chicken « Oishii! — January 16, 2011 #

  11. Hi Barbara–great recipe. I’ve made it four or more times now. It has quickly become a family favorite. Thank you!

    Comment by Michael Beyer — January 17, 2011 #

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