Gongbao Chicken With Cashews (Gongbao Jiding, 宫保鸡丁)

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Chengdu Challenge #27: The Do’s and Don’ts of Kung Pao

The Mala Project (now The Mala Market blog) turns two years old this month. It hasn’t made me rich or famous (far from!), but that wasn’t the goal. The immediate goal when I started it was to be a better mom to my immigrant daughter by being a better Sichuan home cook. I did it in blog form because I thought that if I committed publicly I’d be far more likely to stick with it.

And it worked! Two years on, I’m a much better Chinese cook and I’ve got a significantly happier Chinese daughter. Fongchong still refuses to eat traditional American food, but her home, at least, tastes like China.

On top of that, in pursuing The Mala Project I got you. I don’t know what I expected when I started this, but I honestly didn’t expect the worldwide community of Sichuan-cuisine fans who have flocked to my blog with questions, comments, enthusiasm and encouragement. Without you I still would have been cooking Sichuan several nights a week, but I wouldn’t have expanded my repertoire as broadly or deeply or had the joy of sharing my adventures with mala lovers around the globe and hearing about yours in return. So thank you, dear readers, followers and commenters for taking this challenge with me and inspiring me to keep going.

(Oh, and if you follow The Mala Project only on FaceBook or Twitter, please consider signing up for my posts—rarely more than one a month—via email, since social media is very stingy in showing posts/tweets to followers.)

Having promised in my mission statement to look and cook beyond the usual Sichuan suspects, on the two-year anniversary I am nonetheless offering up the most obvious Sichuan dish of them all—gongbao jiding, better known outside China as kung pao chicken. I’ve just assumed all along that the world doesn’t need another recipe for kung pao chicken. But as I looked more closely at a lot of the recipes out there I began to think it does, if only because of one secret I learned about making gongbao chicken from my friend Chef Qing Qing in Chengdu that is seldom seen in kung pao recipes in the West.

Use a generous portion of nuts and Tianjin or, preferably, Sichuan chilies
Use a generous portion of nuts and Tianjin or, preferably, Sichuan chilies

What is the most important ingredient in a gongbao recipe, the thing that distinguishes it from other mildly sweet-and-sour, mildly mala dishes? That would be nuts, and usually peanuts. So why are they always an afterthought in recipes? Toward the end of the ingredient list will be the call for 3 ounces (or maybe 1/3 cup or 3 tablespoons) (pre-)roasted peanuts, which you will be instructed to toss in at the end of the stir-fry.

But I think that misses the point of the dish. In Sichuan, I learned that the first and most important step is to start with raw peanuts and fry them yourself until golden brown. It makes all the difference in the dish, because freshly cooked peanuts taste more fresh, more toasty, more peanuty, and don’t taste like you’ve tossed your freebie airplane snack into your otherwise lovingly constructed dish.

Fry the fresh nuts until golden and toasty for the best gongbao
Fry the fresh nuts until golden and toasty

A couple of other things about the traditional recipe that I feel less strongly about: The chicken bites—always dark meat in Sichuan—should be small, in the realm of the size of the peanuts and chili peppers, not large and chunky. And though, like all Americans, I’m guilty too of trying to make any dish into a one-pot meal, there really shouldn’t be a lot of extraneous ingredients in there like bell peppers and celery (unless you love those ingredients, then, by all means, add them).

One change I do like to make to the classic gongbao, as Sichuanese themselves sometimes do, is substituting cashew nuts for peanuts—fried the exact same way!—because I love the contrast of the rich, buttery nut with the slightly acidic sauce. It’s the luxury version of gongbao.

As I’ve previously discussed, you can gongbao many things—my take on gongbao lotus root is here. You can also substitute shrimp to delicious effect. Just remember that different ingredients and amounts of ingredients might necessitate different amounts of sauce, which you can judge as you are adding it in at the end. There shouldn’t be pools of sauce on the plate, but you also don’t want to be stingy with this genius concoction. I use more sauce than many recipes. And more chili peppers, of course.

A uniform size to the gongbao ingredients helps them all play nice in the wok
A uniform size to the ingredients helps them all play nice in the wok

For more classic recipes with tips and tricks from real-deal mainland chefs, see posts like my Chengdu Stir-Fried Rice or The Queen of Mapo Doufu Recipes (Mapo Tofu) and Chongqing Chicken Like It’s Made in Chongqing.

Gongbao Chicken With Cashews (Gongbao Jiding, 宫保鸡丁)

By: Taylor Holliday | The Mala Market | Inspiration & Ingredients for Sichuan Cooking

Ingredients 

  • 1 pound dark-meat chicken, cut in ½-inch cubes
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup raw cashews (or raw skinless peanuts)
  • 4 tablespoons Zhenjiang black vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 12 (or more) dried medium-hot chili peppers, preferably Sichuan, large ones snipped in half
  • 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
  • 6 scallions, cut in ½-inch lengths, whites and greens separated
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, coarsely chopped

Instructions 

  • Marinate chicken cubes in 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine and ½ teaspoon salt.
  • Heat wok until hot and add 3 tablespoons peanut or canola oil. When oil is hot, turn heat to low, add nuts and gently stir-fry until toasty brown all over. Watch closely so they don't burn. Remove from wok and let drain on paper towel. They will firm up and become crunchy when cool. (Don't be tempted to substitute roasted nuts or skip this step; it makes all the difference.)
  • Mix sauce ingredients together in a measuring cup: Zhenjiang vinegar, chicken stock, light soy sauce, sugar, 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine, cornstarch, and 1 teaspoon salt.
  • Clean wok and heat over a high flame until extremely hot (which keeps the chicken from sticking). Add 2 tablespoons oil, swirl around the pan and add the chicken cubes. Spread the chicken out around the wok, and let the pieces sear on one side. Flip the chicken and let sear on the other side. Stir-fry until chicken is cooked through and lightly browned. Remove chicken from wok and let drain on a paper towel.
  • Clean work and return to heat. When wok is hot, add 3 tablespoons fresh oil and heat briefly on a medium flame. Add chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns and stir-fry vigorously, toasting but not burning them. Add the scallion whites, ginger and garlic and stir-fry until fragrant.
  • Add back the chicken cubes and toss in the scallion greens. Stir-fry briefly and mix well. Add the sauce and mix well. As the sauce thickens, add back the cashew nuts and stir-fry briefly until all ingredients are well combined. Plate and serve.

Tried this recipe?

 

About Taylor Holliday

The Mala Market all began when Taylor, a former journalist, created this blog as a place to document her adventures learning to cook Sichuan food for Fongchong, her recently adopted 11-year-old daughter. They discovered through the years that the secret to making food that tastes like it would in China is using the same ingredients that are used in China. The mother-daughter team eventually began visiting Sichuan’s factories and farms together and, in 2016, opened The Mala Market, America’s source for heritage Sichuan ingredients and Chinese pantry essentials.

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45 Comments

  1. Another great dish, Taylor. Made this for two picky eaters on Friday and they gobbled it up. Next Saturday 6 friends are coming over and we are doing a “cook-off” between this and the Lao Gan Ma Black Bean Chicken. Can’t wait to see which one wins among my friends. Enjoy your travels and keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks, Jim! I’d love to know the results from your cook-off. Maybe you can substitute shrimp in one dish and let them both win. 🙂

  2. Looks similar to how I’ve been making it for a year or so after finding various recipes and guides online. One thing that stands out to me about your take on this recipe is the amount of vinegar. I usually use 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons per pound of chicken and just slightly less than a 1:1 ratio for the sugar (heaping tablespoon). Besides the peanuts, I think that the vinegar/sugar combo is what gives this dish its primary flavor. The lack of doubanjiang/tianmianjiang/douchi lets the sweet and sour flavor take center stage. I am going to up the vinegar a bit to see how it turns out.

    1. Hi David,
      I probably do use more vinegar those most recipes. Sometimes gong bao dishes are quite sweet, but I personally prefer sour, so I err on the side of vinegar. To each his own gong bao. 🙂

  3. We made this tonight for our Chinese exchange student and it was a great hit with her and with us! Excited to try more recipes!

  4. Dear Taylor,

    You are a breath of fresh air and somewhat of an answered prayer. 🙂 I have read these posts or blogs or whatever they are and find my mouth is watering for these delicious Sichuan treats. I am not sure how all this works (I am challenged in this arena, but I love Sichuan food. The other day I replied to you about Ganbian si ji Dou but I doubt you got it. I crave that dish as well. I have lots of questions to ask you, please tell me how I go about doing that! Best regards,

    Richard

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Richard. I can’t find your green bean questions, but feel free to email me at taylor @ blog.themalamarket.com (no spaces). Or if you think others might benefit from your questions, it’s best if you comment on the actual post. Try again?

  5. If I may say, please add my humble change to your recipe. Eliminate the salt in the sauce and in step 5 add 1 tablespoon of Pixian doubanjiang to the oil first, stirring constantly. The salt in the doubanjiang eliminates the need for it in the sauce. Once the oil is red, then add the la jiao (chili’s) and hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorns). This is how my wife’s family in Chengdu makes it.

    1. Hi Vince,
      That’s interesting. I’ve never seen a recipe for gong bao with doubanjiang in it, since it’s supposed to be a light sweet-and-sour sauce. But I’m sure there are a million ways to make it. And douban is never a bad idea. Thanks for the tip!

  6. One recipe I’ve been hunting for for a decade is a Gong Bao Beef like the one at Chia Shiang in Ann Arbor, MI. One of my all-time favorite dishes, and since we moved away I’ve found nothing remotely like it in an hour’s drive, nor in any recipe I’ve found in a cookbook or online. My own attempts to make it always fall short. (That said I haven’t gone through the new edition of Dunlop to see if it is there.)

    In my memory: generous beef, an overload of peanuts, minimal but perfect sauce. Not evident in the picture below, my memory says it also had generous quantities of thinly sliced garlic and green onions.

    Here’s a link to Lisa Leutheuser’s photo of the dish:
    https://leutheuser.blogs.com/.shared/image.html?/photos/uncategorized/2008/04/28/leutheuser_20080413_0015_4.jpg

    Does this ring any bells as something you’ve seen in your food adventures?

    1. Can’t say I’ve had gong bao beef. Have you tried making it with the gong bao chicken recipe, just substituting beef? If they’ve named it gong bao, you would assume they used the typical gong bao sauce and peanuts.

  7. Hi Taylor,
    I’ve arrived at The Mala Market several years late, but better late than never. You are an inspiration. And a great writer, as well. Now I’m ready to make all of your dishes, starting with this one.

  8. Do you have a Gong Bao Tofu recipe? If not, is it possible to use tofu with this technique? I’m going to look at online recipes that use tofu, then use whatever technique seems best for the tofu in addition to your ingredients. Do you recommend Caiziyou or peanut oil? I’m not a vegetarian, I just love tofu. Especially with dried chilies, good sauces, and great rice.

    1. Hi Hollis, thanks for reading. We do not have a gong bao tofu recipe specifically, but you’re welcome to freestyle however you please. Perhaps you could try pan-frying firm tofu (I like to slice them in triangles) and then adding it to the stirfry near the end. We love caiziyou for stirfries, this recipe was just written before we started carrying caiziyou for purchase. Let us know how it works for you!

  9. Hey Taylor,

    I know I haven’t written in a while,. But we are sitting here enjoying this for the ump-tenth millionth time. It is one of my all time favorites. I know you have been at this a while, but PLEASE keep up the good work. Love your stuff and am always anxious to try your new recipes!

    1. Jim, thanks for sharing your feedback and support! This one’s an old but favorite classic for sure!