08 October 2007

Kung Pao Chicken

Gōng bǎo jī dīng
Kung Pao Chicken
You'd think that if ever I was faced with the impossible conundrum of having to eat just one thing for 2 weeks or on a desert island, or even my last meal, judging from my posts on this blog I'd have dessert. Not true. While most desserts will have the tendency to pall, there are many entrées that are capable of keeping the taste buds satisfied; one of my favorites (I'll get back to you if I decide it's ultimately my favorite) is Kung Pao. Kung Pao chicken was a dish introduced to me by the sitcom Seinfeld. Kung Pao spaghetti was my first taste of it-- at California Pizza Kitchen, no less. After that, if offered on the menu, I simply could not not order it. It's even one of the few dishes where I tolerate those obnoxious cucumbers. And thanks to the recent availability of Sichuan peppercorns at Rustan's supermarkets (though I'm sure you could procure them at Chinatown in Binondo quite easily), it can now be done at home, replicating the perfect fragrance and exquisite heat of any version you can find in a restaurant-- which, mind you, may not even shell out for the peppercorns. The recipe I use here is from Chryz with a few improvisations and adjusted instructions of my own. I recommend that you visit his site for an excellent pictorial as well as tons of other gorgeous recipes. (Recipe follows)

Now, the problem is that I couldn't find dried red peppers which classically grace the top of the dish. No problem. I just made my own. I didn't have enough time to bring them to dry pepper perfection, but just enough to complete the effect. I placed about 20 chili peppers on a baking sheet and placed them on the bottom rack of the oven for 6 hours at 150°F (65°C). The ones I didn't use I can finish in the sun.
Oven-Dried Chili Pepper
Before and after.

  • 3 respectably-sized chicken breasts, total of about 600-700g, no skin, bone, or cartilage (save them for another use)

  • 1 red bell pepper

  • 1 medium cucumber

  • 1 medium red onion

  • 5 stalks green onion

  • 50g (1/2 cup) roasted peanuts, unsalted or not

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch

  • 1 tablespoon Shao Hsing (Chinese cooking) wine, rice wine, or dry sherry

  • 1 tablespoon light soy sauce

Dice the chicken into 1-inch pieces at most, but at least be uniform. Place the chicken cubes, oil, cornstarch, wine, and soy sauce in a bowl and give a quick toss before placing in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to marinate. Dice the pepper and cucumber into 1/2-inch squares or cubes, dice the onion, and chop the green onions into 1/2-inch pices.
  • 3 tablespoons Hoisin sauce

  • 4 tablespoons light soy sauce

  • 3 tablespoons Shao Hsing (Chinese cooking) wine, rice wine, or dry sherry

  • 2 tablespoons apple cider, rice wine, or red wine vinegar

  • 3 tablespoons oyster sauce

  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar, honey, or white sugar

  • 2 tablespoons chicken stock, or a small pinch chicken stock powder plus 2 tablespoons water, or 2 tablespoons water

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • 1-inch knob of ginger

  • 3 garlic cloves

  • 7 dried chili peppers

  • 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns

  • 2 teaspoons Sesame oil

Mince the garlic and grate the ginger; set aside. In a wok or any suitably large frying pan, dry-roast the dried red peppers and the peppercorns until they release their aroma; set aside. In a blender or food processor, combine the hoisin sauce, soy sauce, wine, vinegar, oyster sauce, sugar, and chicken stock. Toss in the roasted peppercorns and 2 of the dried peppers and purée until no big chunks of the dried red pepper remain and the peppercorns are pulverized. If you don't have a blender or food processor or if you want to be more thorough, crush the peppers and peppercorns with a mortar and pestle, then just whisk together with the sauce in a small bowl or use the blender anyway.

In the same pan, heat the oil over high heat (smoking hot really) and add the chicken pieces until it has cooked through (the pink inside has just disappeared and try to avoid cooking it longer than that; but even if you do, it will still be delicious). Drain the chicken from the pan, leaving the hot oil behind, and set aside. You could also fry the peanuts until they achieve a darker brown hue (especially if you only have unroasted peanuts) but I didn't bother. In the same oil, sauté the cucumber, onion, green onion, and red bell pepper for about 4 minutes; just to remove their rawness while still retaining their crunchiness. If they start to release liquid, stop cooking and drain them right away. In the same oil, sauté the ginger and garlic for 30 seconds. Add the contents of the blender (the sauce) and bring to a boil. Keep it at a boil until it has reduced to a thick syrup-like consistency. Add in the cooked chicken, peanuts, the rest of the dried peppers, and cooked vegetables and toss to heat the chicken through and coat all the pieces with sauce. Transfer to your serving plate and drizzle with sesame oil. Serves 6 people.

It may seem like a lot of work but it only takes a short time (the drawback, I suppose, would be the long ingredient list). But believe me; it is worth it, and I wouldn't mind eating it everyday for 2 weeks.

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