This is a common dish in any Chinese restaurant. It was my favorite Chinese dish as a teenager. As a child, the only Chinese dish I ever tasted was sweet and sour chicken because my mother and father loved it. As I got older I realized there was far better cuisine to be had. And in addition to being my first favorite, this dish is still the favorite Chinese dish of a dear childhood friend of mine, Mark Mason. Mark I am dedicating this post to you! Mark found this small hole in the wall Chinese restaurant near the University of Maryland when he was a student there that had the BEST Kung Pao Chicken! I can vouch to this having tasted it myself. He would stop in this place several times a week to eat, so bad was his craving for Kung Pao Chicken. Mark still makes pilgrimages to this place now and then even today.
What I am going to present here is the Kung Pao Chicken you will find in a Chinese restaurant in the United States. The way this dish is made in China is different and that type will not be treated here. Four ingredients are common to any Kung Pao recipe. Peanuts, chopped celery, hot peppers (dried or fresh) and onions. The rest of the ingredients will vary.
As with almost any Asian dish – we make our rice first. I am making 3 cups here because there will be 4 of us eating it. Ok, so on with the ingredients. One of the most important parts to good Kung Pao dishes are the peanuts. Because this is a central ingredient we do not want to skimp on quality. Do NOT buy peanuts that are already salted or roasted. Especially not salted. If you have to settle for roasted that is fine but no salt. But if you can find them, unsalted raw peanuts are far and away the best.
I get my peanuts from the agricultural department at Mississippi State University (I am partial to them because my oldest son is a student there). These are very high quality peanuts that literally go from the farm to the market and are frozen on the same day they are harvested and shelled. I have to say I am very pleased with them. You get flavor and crunch with such a superior product. The texture of the peanuts are paramount to good Kung Pao! They will be cooked and pick up their flavor when roasted in the oil with the garlic.
For my example dish here, the ingredients starting from the top right and going clockwise in a circle are: Peanut oil, chopped celery, 1 quartered medium onion, Kung Pao sauce (recipe below), raw peanuts, chili peppers, raw chicken cut to bite sized pieces, minced garlic and chopped carrots.
There are two common ingredients found in Kung Pao Chicken I did not use here. Mushrooms and bell peppers. Now I like mushrooms but unfortunately the other people eating this – my wife and two younger kids – don’t. So it is omitted for this demonstration. And while you will find bell peppers often in restaurant Kung Pao dishes too, in my humble opinion bell peppers are one of the most overused vegetables in Chinese and Thai cuisines. It’s like a cheap filler to boost profits. Take out expensive meats, put in cheap bell peppers. Don’t get me wrong, I love bell peppers raw. But cooked, you can taste them every time you burp for DAYS so I don’t like them in my stir fry. But if you like bell peppers yourself by all means indulge yourself.
Now I have said in many other posts on Asian dishes that you must have extremely high heat. I will say that it makes a much better tasting dish that gives that wok hei, or breath of the dragon taste. That slight char flavor that many Chinese dishes are known for. But I will not sit here and tell you it is a requirement. You can make a delicious Kung Pao Chicken on your stove in a skillet.
With me, since I have the tools, I fire up my mighty wok burner and set my 18″ wok on it.
After getting the wok and oil very hot, my carrots go in. They need a little bit longer than the other ingredients to get tender. Because of the high heat, this whole meal will be done in under 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
I add my chicken and peanuts next. In the time it takes the chicken to become opaque, the peanuts will more than roast enough in that hot oil. Look at that smoke – that’s giving us some good flavor.
All the ingredients are added next except for the sauce. I cook everything here for another 35-45 seconds. But with the sauce. that gets stirred in quickly and gets thick within seconds because of the starch right before we finish.
And here it is in my serving bowl with sauce and still piping hot. One secret with the sauce. Kung Pao sauce – while spicy – is not supposed to have an overpowering flavor. The taste comes from the peppers, celery and peanuts before the meat. You want a milder sweet and savory flavor so you will note I dilute mine below. Most of the flavor in the sauce comes from soy sauce and sugar. This is a wonderful versatile meal with a very broad appeal.
Here is my own dish plated. You’ll note I have piled on the sliced chili peppers. That’s why I used my own dish as the example because my family’s plates are all absent of peppers which makes them technically NOT Kung Pao at all. But all plates were empty after dinner so I did my job. Mark, I was thinking of you while we ate this, buddy! If you try this recipe I’d love your thoughts.
Kung Pao Chicken (serves 4-6)
- 4 tablespoons peanut oil
- 1 lb chicken breasts or tenderloins sliced into bite sized pieces.
- 2 cups shelled raw peanuts
- 1 1/2 cups sliced celery
- 1 cup sliced carrots
- 1 medium onion quartered.
- 1 cup mushrooms sliced.
- 4-5 cloves garlic pulped and minced.
- dried or fresh hot chili peppers to taste.
- 1/16 tsp Chinese white pepper (optional)
Kung Pao Sauce
- 4 tablespoons corn starch.
- 1 tablespoon sweet soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 3 tablespoons white vinegar
- 2-3 tablespoons brown sugar (to taste)
- 3/4 cup cold water
- Mix the corn starch and water very thoroughly.
- Add the starch and water slurry to the remaining sauce ingredients and stir well.
- Heat the peanut oil to smoking in a wok or skillet.
- Add the carrots and cook for 20 seconds in a wok or slightly longer in skillet.
- Add the chicken and peanuts and stir to coat with oil. Cook for 25-30 seconds in a wok or until chicken is opaque.
- Add garlic and stir well for 10 seconds.
- Add onions, celery and mushrooms and stir well. Cook another 35-45 seconds.
- Add the hot chilis now unless you have people that will not be eating it.
- Mix the sauce again with a whisk while pouring into the wok or skillet.
- Stir well and cook for another 30 seconds until sauce is bubbling.
- Remove from heat.
- Serve with fresh steamed white rice.