Kung Pao Chicken (or Shrimp)

This little feast takes a very deep dive into the spicy umami world of Szechuan cuisine. 

One of the crucial ingredients of Szechuan home cooking is Szechuan peppers (pic included).  Not really a pepper, it is a spice from bushes locally found in Southern China.  It is lemony and savory, and it has the unique ability to cause the palate to momentarily tingle.  Although few other American recipes call for them, it is very commonly used in Szechuan province.  The tingling mesmerizing qualities of Szechuan Peppers is a sensation we associate with authentic meals from Szechuan, and this dish is far more compelling with it included.  The Chinese characters for Szechuan Peppers translates to “numb hot”… which is a perfect description of what happens in your mouth when you eat them.  First your mouth seems slightly numb, the stillness before the storm, and then the heat comes, full of flavor and sensations.  It’s absolutely addictive.

The other crucial ingredient for authentic Szechuan cuisine is fermented broad bean paste.  I know, it doesn’t sound sexy.  But it is.  Very.  It lies at the heart and soul of the intense umami flavors in authentic Szechuan feasts.  All fermented foods are umami, but this stuff is just magical.  It’s also easily available on Amazon, ( pic included).  Please give broad bean paste a whirl when you cook a Szechuan meal, it’s a completely unique flavor, and packed with savory intensity.   Soon we will posting more Szechuan dishes like Szechuan Orange Chicken and Szechuan Hot and Sour Soup.  Also check out our post of Ma Po Tofu, another Szechuan feast we are crazy about. 

Ingredients in Total

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, lightly salted and cut into approximately 1 1/2 inch pieces

1/2 cup unsalted roasted peanuts, (not dry roasted)

1 medium red bell pepper, cut into bite size pieces

1 medium green bell pepper, cut into bite size pieces

4 large cloves garlic, minced

1 heaping tablespoon ginger, grated (about an inch or two, depending on thickness)

1 tablespoon Szechuan or Korean fermented chili paste (if not available, use chili oil)

4 stalks large sized green onions (scallions), white and green parts separated and chopped

3 tablespoons Chinese Shaoxing rice wine, (1 tablespoon for the marinade, and 2 tablespoons to be combined with the corn starch)

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon Szechuan pepper, ground. (We toast them in a hot dry skillet for 60 seconds before grinding them. If you want to infuse the oils with the wonderful tingling flavor of Szechuan pepper, put an extra tablespoon of whole peppers into the hot peanut oil for 30 seconds, before the frying the chicken, and then remove the peppers before continuing.)

3 tablespoons peanut oil, (2 for the chicken wok fry and 1 for the bell peppers wok fry)

12 dried red chili peppers (we use either Thai or Indian, not Mexican, they are different in size, flavor profile and texture)

2 tablespoons mirin (1 tablespoon mirin for the marinade, 1 tablespoon mirin for the cooking sauce) or 2 teaspoons sugar, split in half proportionally the same way

1/2 teaspoon salt for the chicken (the soy sauces already contain the rest of the necessary salt)

Marinade

I tablespoon dark soy sauce (it’s very important to search for this amazing soy, crucial for our Chinese cooking, including Szechuan Hot and Sour Soup)

1 tablespoon Chinese Shaoxing rice wine (if not available, use Sherry wine)

1 tablespoon mirin or 1 teaspoon sugar

Cooking Sauce

1 tablespoon Chinese black vinegar

1 teaspoon light soy or Tamari 

1 teaspoon hoisin sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon chili oil

1 tablespoon mirin or 1 teaspoon sugar

Separate Small Bowl

1 tablespoon corn starch

2 tablespoons Chinese Shoaxing rice wine

Prep Work

Marinate the chicken in a bowl, or a 1 gallon plastic storage bag with zipped closure, together with the dark soy, Chinese rice wine and mirin/sugar for 10 to 30 minutes while preparing the other sauces.

The cooking sauce… in a small bowl combine the black vinegar, light soy sauce or Tamari, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, chili oil, and sugar or mirin.

In a second small bowl, combine garlic, ginger, chili paste and the white portion of the chopped scallions.

In a third small bowl, combine the 2 tablespoons Chinese Shaoxing rice wine with 1 tablespoon corn starch, stir until fully dissolved.

Cooking

On high heat, add the first 2 tablespoons of peanut oil to the wok until it begins to smoke. Swirl the oil around the inside walls of the wok and then add half the dried red chili peppers. Fry until they are nearly blackened, about 15 seconds and remove from wok, keep the chili peppers.  (Now an option, if you want to strongly flavor the oil, you can fry a tablespoon of Szechuan peppers for about 15 seconds, remove with a fine mesh stainless steel strainer and discard.)

Add the chicken plus the rest of the dried red chili pepper and peanuts, leaving these ingredients to sear along the sides and bottom for 30 seconds, and then turn and fry until charred, about 3 or 4 minutes.  If you have more than 1 1/2 pounds of chicken, or a small wok or pan, you will need to do this frying in two groups, otherwise there is just too much meat and not enough heat to sear all of it.

Now remove the chicken from the wok, set aside in a bowl, and add the last tablespoon of peanut oil. Then in the bottom of the wok add the garlic, ginger, chili paste and the scallion whites and fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds, and then add the bell peppers. Fry on high heat until slightly seared and softened, turning often with the large steel spatula. 

Now add the chicken back to the wok and stir everything together patiently until all the ingredients are fully cooked and charred.

Pour in the cooking sauce and the rice wine/corn starch mixture, stirring and turning with the steel spatula until all the chicken pieces and peppers are coated and glossy, both seared and aromatic. 

Now add the scallion greens, the blackened peppers, and the ground Szechuan peppers, stirring well. 

Serve with fragrant white rice.

Szechuan Shrimp

You can easily make this classic Szechuan meal with shrimp as well, but please eliminate the marinade and the entire marinating step.  Wok fry the shrimp only until they are firming up and getting plump, and are no longer translucent, they will continue to cook after you remove them from the heat. Also, they are too tender a flavor for the use of Szechuan peppers at the very end.