Kung pao (gong bao) chicken

With its simple ingredients, kung pao chicken is surprisingly easy to make at home. The secret to making chicken as juicy and soft as in Chinese restaurant stir fries is one extra step: blanching the chicken pieces in hot oil or water first.

Marinating ingredients

  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce (my mom and I use Kikkoman)
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 egg white (see note below)

Sauce ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (white or brown)
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch (or tapioca starch)

Other ingredients

  • Cooking oil
  • 1 bell pepper, diced (optional)
  • 4 dried whole chili peppers, broken in half (more or less if you like; this should give a mild kick)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 slices ginger, minced
  • 2 green onions, sliced (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 2/3 cup roasted peanuts

Preparation

  1. Cut chicken against the grain (across the lines, not along them) into 1/2-inch strips, then cut each strip into bite-sized pieces. The exact size of the pieces is not as important as the uniformity – ideally pieces should have about the same cook time.
  2. Place chicken pieces in a medium bowl and add soy sauce, cornstarch and egg white (I also recommend few shakes of salt if you are using the water method). Stir well to coat. Set aside (if you have time, let marinate in refrigerator for a couple of hours or up to a day before).
  3. Prepare sauce: In a small bowl, add soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and cornstarch. Mix and set aside.
  4. Blanching chicken in batches – oil method (preferred): Heat 1/2 inch of oil in a wok or small skillet and heat until very hot and shimmering. Use a spoon to lower chicken to oil carefully, one scoop at a time. Stir to separate chicken pieces. Add enough so that chicken fits into a comfortable but not crowded single layer. Turn pieces and remove quickly with a slotted spoon or spatula after the chicken turns white. Chicken will not completely cooked through. Drain well in a strainer or on paper towels while you cook the next batch.
  5. Blanching chicken in batches – water method: Boil a couple of inches of water in a saucepan. Add a tablespoon of cooking oil. Use a spoon to lower chicken into boiling water carefully, one scoop at a time. Don’t overcrowd the pot; you want the water to stay close to boiling. Stir to separate chicken pieces. Turn pieces and remove quickly with a slotted spoon or spatula after the chicken turns white. Chicken will not be completely cooked through. Drain well in a strainer or on paper towels while you cook the next batch.
  6. When finished with oil blanching, remove excess oil from pan (you can strain and re-use it later if you like), leaving a tablespoon or two. If you used the water method, you’ll need to heat 2 tablespoons oil in a wok or skillet over medium-high heat. Add bell peppers, if using, and cook briefly to soften. Remove bell peppers.
  7. Add dried chili peppers, garlic and ginger, turning until fragrant. Give prepared sauce a stir before adding to the pan. Sauce will immediately turn glossy and thicken. Add chicken and bell peppers back to pan (careful not to include any liquid that may have collected during the chicken’s post-blanching rest). Stir to coat. Add green onions, if using, and peanuts. Drizzle sesame oil over and mix. Remove to platter and serve hot.

Serves 6.

Notes

  • Chicken is much more flavorful with the quick dip in oil instead of water.
  • The water method is preferred only if you have to prepare ahead of time – you can blanch the chicken in water, drain well and refrigerate until you are ready to finish the dish.
  • If you blanch the chicken in oil, you can skip the egg white without any issues. But you do need the egg for the water method.
  • If using raw peanuts, you can give the peanuts a quick fry before starting the chicken. Just add peanuts to oil first, cook briefly until golden, and use a strainer to remove. Drain well in a strainer or on paper towels.
  • In a pinch, you can substitute a shake of crushed red pepper for the whole dried chili peppers.
  • Don’t sweat it if you don’t have fresh ginger – it’s also fine without.
  • If you don’t have white vinegar, apple cider vinegar or unseasoned rice vinegar would also work. If you use seasoned rice vinegar, you can reduce the sugar in the marinade to maybe 2 teaspoons.
  • As is traditional, this recipe doesn’t make a ton of sauce, just enough to coat the chicken pieces. If you want extra, or if you are adding some extra vegetables, you can certainly double the sauce.

Here’s a link back to the post and pictures.

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