This easy Chinese stir fry, the Gong Bao Chicken 宮保雞丁, also known as the Kung Pao Chicken, is a dish of bold and striking flavor and textures, a voluptuous treat for the culinary senses. It is a savory dish, touched with the umami of soy sauce, the tang of black vinegar, the pepperyness of ginger, the hot of chili pepper, a hint of numbness from the szechuan pepper, and the fragrant aroma of sesame and spring onion. In texture the Gong Bao Chicken is tender and chewy (the chicken), crisp ( the water chestnut) and crunchy (the peanuts). This easy to make yet spectacular stir fry has a little bit of everything nice!
Note: This dish has chili pepper in it! Integral part of the dish. As you've probably noted ours doesn't. This is because our little girl can't tolerate spicy at all (working on training her!) and so for the time being we cook without it :(
Before diving into the how of things, I'd like to introduce the why, the man himself, the inspiration behind this famous dish, Ding Baozhen 丁寶楨 (1820-1886), nicknamed Ding Gongbao 丁宮保, a Chinese official who was governor of Szechuan province during the late Qing dynasty. He famously was a gastronome and particularily loved a certain stir fried chicken dish that his chefs created for him. That very dish, of course, has become famous worldwide as Gong Bao Chicken 宮保雞丁!
OMGosh, Governer Ding's beard is sooo happening!!!
The meat used is chicken breasts, cut into cubes and marinated in the usual Chinese way with a bit of soy sauce, a splash of Shao Hsing rice wine and lastly cornstarch for thickening. If you want to do a stir fry with any meat, this method of marination is the usual way to go.
The crunch comes from two things, the water chestnuts 馬蹄 and the peanuts. Once the water chestnuts are washed, peeled and chopped they provide a distinctive crispy crunch and a refreshing slight sweetness to the stir fry. The skins require a bit of knife work to get off but sometimes you can find pre-peeled ones at the super market or the wet market. Or you can get already peeled canned water chestnuts.
The other crunch is the delightly nutty crunch from peanuts. We like to use deep fried peanuts for this dish as deep fried peanuts have the best crunch and taste. We get ours from the local supermarket, they prepare it fresh, so convenient! In the photo above the peanut skins are still on. To take off simply rub between your hands or a towel if you don't want to get your hands greasy.
Psst...See our sweet take on the water chestnut with our recipe for Chinese Water Chestnut Cake 馬蹄糕.
The aromatics for this dish are spring onion, garlic, ginger and chilies. The garlic is used for its mellow pungency and is simply minced. For the fresh ginger, it is important that it is sliced to very, very thin matchsticks. It must be sliced this way because it is meant to be eaten in this dish, not removed. So to make the experience pleasant both in texture (thin smooth wisps opposed to thick hard and possibly hairy sticks) and taste (a touch of pepperness vs way too much), thin, thin, thin slices is best. If you would like to further dial back the pepperness of the ginger a soak in cold water before using will do the trick.
Next is the humble spring onion aromatic which is an under appreciated aromatic in my opinion. Not a meal goes by if we're cooking Chinese that we do not need spring onion. Which, for some strange reason, is not that easy to buy in HK, alot of supermarkets don't carry it or run out of it!! Arggh! Anyways, for a stir fry, slice the spring onion into inch lengths and use it as an aromatic, i.e. toss into the hot oil to infuse the oil before adding main ingredients, but also treat it like another veggie as in it's rather delicious to eat. These large bits of cooked spring onion are an absolute delight to eat, fragrantly delicious and infused with the flavors of the dish, the greens a bit squeaky to bite into, the whites softened and bursting. Sometimes it's the favorite bit of the dish for me...
The last aromatics are the peppers. Not one pepper for this dish but two. The first is dried small chili pepper, whatever small chili pepper you like. If we had added chilies we would have used dried Thai red chillies since we always a bunch of these hang dried in the house. (So easy, just hang em and let them dry and they keep like that forever!) Dried chili pepper is different from fresh, it's hotter!
The second chili is not really a chili pepper at all but rather a spice: the szechuan pepper, also known as Chinese prickly ash 花椒. This wonderful spice infuses a floral, citrusy, spicy flavor into the dish as well as a tingling numbing effect in the mouth. It's a really special, unforgettable, unique flavor. With this unique spice this dish's flavor is taken to the next level!
The final flavor notes are found in the sauce. A bit of sugar to bridge and balance, umami from the dark and light soy sauces, the bold pungent tang of black Chinese vinegar and the nutty fragrance of sesame oil. The result? A stunning little dish of bold vibrant flavors and textures...so yummilicious!! Many thanks to Ding Baozhen 丁宮保 and his stalwart love of stir fried chicken!
Gong Bao Chicken Recipe 宮保雞丁
(adapted from Land of Plenty by Fuchsia Dunlop)
Prep time: 10 mins Cook time: 5 mins
2 tsp light soy sauce
1/2 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 tsp cornstarch
2 chicken breasts, skinless
5 water chestnuts 馬蹄
3 cloves garlic
1 1/2 inch fresh ginger
2 sprigs spring onion
3-5 dried small chiles
1 tsp szechuan peppers 花椒
1/2 cup deep fried peanuts (or roasted peanuts)
3 tsp sugar
1 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp light soy sauce
3 tsp Chinkiang black Chinese vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp water
Cut the chicken breasts into 1/2 inch cubes. Mix with light soy sauce, rice wine, cornstarch and let marinate for 10-15 mins.
Peel and mince garlic. Peel and slice ginger into very very thin matchsticks, about 1 1/2 tbsp worth. Wash and slice spring onion into 1 inch lengths.
Wash water chestnuts and slice off the skin. Cut into 1/2 inch cube chunks (approx).
Prepare the dried chilies. If you prefer very spicy hot use scissors to cut into 1/2 inch sections. If you prefer less spicy scoop out seeds and discard. Careful not to rub your eyes before washing hands thoroughly. Another way to achieve less spicy is to use the dried chilies whole, only slicing off the green stem.
Mix all sauce ingredients together. Heat up wok until hot. Add in 2 tbsp oil. Add dried chilies and szechuan pepper and stir for 10-15 secs until aroma is released. Add in chicken, stir and flip chicken over once or twice. Add in garlic, ginger and spring onions. Stir, then add in water chestnuts. Stir fry another few minutes until chicken is done. Stir up the sauce (the cornstarch settles on bottom after a while) and add to the wok. Keep stir frying until the sauce thickens and clings to the chicken. Add in the peanuts, give it a final toss and scoop onto serving plate. Enjoy the deliciousness!