Those with some knowledge of Chinese culture or world travel experience know that the Chinese food you get in American Chinese restaurants and the Chinese food Chinese people eat at home or in restaurants are two different beasts entirely. Chinese people seem to be big fans of meat having some resistance to it, a la tripe, chicken feet, tendon, stewed pork belly with the skin on, and a whole lot of other offal. They’re also not as removed from the fact that their meat was an animal before, tending to prefer bone-in meats like oxtail.
Chinese people, though, being the amazingly resourceful people that they often are, figured out a long time ago out that Americans probably don’t like this whole chewy texture thing as much. We like fried things. Crispy things. A lot. And stuff with sauces and familiar flavors and vegetables. This is my best guess as to how Americanized Chinese food was born: Chinese people figured out what Americans like, and tailored their cuisine to be addictive to Americans. I think they did a darn good job.
However, I like both Americanized Chinese food and more authentic Chinese food, each on their own separate incomparable planes of existence. One such dish that crosses the boundaries in name and concept is Kung Pao Chicken, or 宫保鸡丁(gōng bǎo jī dīng). The Americanized version has battered boneless chicken bits fried until crispy and covered with a spicy somewhat sour sauce, with whole peanuts added and maybe some other vegetables. The Chinese version kind of omits the whole crispy factor and keeps in the bones and skin, doesn’t add any unnecessary vegetables, uses more local varieties of vinegar, and adds some spices more unfamiliar to the American palette (namely, Sichuan Peppercorns or 花椒).
Oddly, I like the Chinese version a lot better. Normally I’m not a huge fan of peanuts in food, but it works somehow. Tonight, inspired by my friend Jiaxu’s peanutless recipe that was very similar to this, I attempted cooking my own gōng bǎo jī dīng. The results were tasty, but need some perfection. You can see my recipe below with suggestions as to how to make it better. I suspect my recipe is somewhere in between the lands of Americanized and Chinese Chinese cuisine.
Gong Bao Chicken
(serves 2 with rice)
- ~1 pound of bone in, skin on chicken thighs (3 thighs)
- 1/2 c rice wine (I just used sake, because it’s what I had.)
- 1 c black vinegar
- pinch salt
- 10 dried red “chiles de arbol”, basically dried red thai chilis, or something similar
- 2 tsp powdered Sichuan peppercorn (“flower pepper”, or sometimes, “red pepper”, 花椒)
- 1 tbsp peanut oil
- 1/3 cup raw peanuts, smashed with a cleaver or other wide knife (plain roasted peanuts will suffice, just don’t fry them as long.)
- 2 green onions, roughly chopped, ends removed
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced into thin coins
- additional black vinegar
(If you can’t use black vinegar, my best suggestion would be to use cider vinegar plus a tiny bit of Worcestershire sauce mixed in with it to mimic the flavor.)
Cut chicken thighs into 2-3″ pieces using a cleaver. Marinate in a bowl with rice wine, vinegar, salt, powdered sichuan peppercorn, chili peppers, for about 1-2 hours (or overnight if you want). Drain off extra marinade before using.
Add the oil to a wok (or large skillet of the cast iron or stainless steel variety) and bring it up to smoking hot. Add additional whole sichuan peppercorns if you have them and like them and the smashed raw peanuts. Fry it up until the peanuts are slightly crispy and browned. Add chicken, keep moving around the pan, browning the meat a bit. Should take no more than 2 minutes.
Add the green onions and garlic, stir. Add additional vinegar, probably about 2/3 cup or so. Keep the chicken moving around, coating it with the vinegar. It should get considerably darker in color. Keep cooking until vinegar is absorbed into chicken and/or evaporated– no liquid should remain on the bottom of the pan.
Serve hot. Avoid the chilis and the bones in the chicken.
A lot of Americans are not fans of having to avoid things in their food. When they go to authentic Chinese restaurants, they complain about not knowing that they’re not supposed to eat whole seed pods in the hot pot broth and the like. You just have to learn or ask. If it’s not chewable or burns your face off, don’t eat it. If this bothers you, stick to Americanized Chinese food.
Having things you aren’t necessarily supposed to eat (that are just there for flavor or seasoning) makes you more aware of what you’re eating. It makes for a more mindful and appreciative slwo experience, which honestly is one of the reasons I think we have to blame for obesity in America. If things weren’t designed to be consumed quickly without having to avoid things, we’d have to take a little more time and our “fullness” instinct would kick in sooner. It’s worth a shot if you cook at home to stop designing your food for efficiency and increase the attentiveness requirement of your meals. It might also save you some money, too.