I cooked Kung Pao chicken for my customers for many years. Throughout my restaurant career, I always referred to different recipes by renowned chefs from China and other countries, looking for the best way to cook Kung Pao.
This is because I am curious to find out, and looking forward to cooking the best for my customers in my restaurant.
Since there are a few sections in this article, I have included the content summary, which you can navigate by clicking the section titles below right away.
Part 1: The best Kung Pao chicken recipe
Kung Pao chicken (Diced chicken with peppers and peanuts) is the most recognizable Chinese stir-fry dish in the world. It is available pretty much in every country and often strongly associated with Chinese heritage. It has become part of the stable of the American-style Chinese food with its own interpretation. Kung Pao chicken is also popular in Southeast Asian countries where many Chinese live.
I carried out a number of tests to find out the differences between recipes, ingredients and the method of cooking. Finally, I have drawn the conclusion on how to cook the best authentic Kung Pao chicken.
Part 2: In search of the tastiest Kung Pao chicken recipe
In the course of searching for the perfect recipe, I have referred to recipes from some renowned chefs, authors and food bloggers. The highlights of these recipes and what I learned from them follows.
I replicated each of these recipes and learnt a great deal of the fine art of cooking them. I want to share my insights with you here.
1. Americanized recipes from Serious Eats
1. It is an Americanized Kung Pao recipe as celery is not used in Sichuan, China.
2. The amount of chili used is also toned down a lot. It is suitable for the Americans who do not consume as much chilli as do the Asians.
3. He pan-fried the chicken with oil first before stir-fry together with other ingredients. I guess he did this to ensure the meat pieces were evenly cooked. (Traditional Chinese chefs usually deep-fry the chicken meat before proceed to stir-frying for the same reason).
4. Sichuan peppercorns are not used thus you won't feel the effect of numbness on the tongue.
5. Chicken thigh meat is used instead of breast meat used in the Sichuan recipe.
6. The inclusion of capsicum in the recipe is a westernized treatment of this dish. The colors of the red and green capsicum make the dish visually attractive.
I like the idea of using thigh meat in this recipe. It is tender, smooth and more flavorsome than chicken breast meat. The marinate gives the meat a wholesome balanced flavor. This flavor of the stir-fried sauce is well-balanced with a myriad of seasonings.
The pan-fried process browns the meat and gives it more flavor. The only downside is that the wok easily becomes dirty as the cornflour in the marinade tends to adhere to the wok surface. I need to remove the chicken and clean the wok with a hard brush before proceeding to the next step.
2. Easy Kung Pao chicken recipe from Rasa Malaysia
1. Most of the ingredients are readily available in the domestic kitchen. The only exception might be dry chili which is not a common ingredient in western kitchens.
2. It is not very spicy compared to the original Sichuan recipe. It should be a suitable recipe for most American households.
3. The taste is a little similar to another Chinese stir-fried dish called 'stir-fried chicken with ginger and spring onion" as ginger and spring onion are both used in this recipe. The flavor of the dry chilli is the obvious difference that emphasizes the uniqueness of Kung Pao chicken.
The chicken in this recipe is breast meat, which is the same as the original Sichuan recipe. The meat is tender, which is accomplished by marination and quick stir-frying. The sit-fry sauce is mainly a mixture of light and dark soy sauce and tastes similarly to some other stir-fried Chinese dishes. I personally love to add more dry chilies for my spicy tongue.
3. Authentic recipe by head chef 王洪 of 天香仁和 Restaurant in Chengdu, Sichuan, China
This recipe was transcribed from a video cooking demonstration from Tian Xiang Ren He restaurant(天香仁和酒楼) in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. (Address: 308 Hongji New Rd, Jinjiang, Chengdu, Sichuan, China). It is a renowned Chinese restaurant specialized in Sichuan cuisine. The recipe was presented on TV by the head chef Huang-Hong (王洪).
Unfortunately, there was no transcription of the recipe provided so I listened to the video and transcribed the recipe. The chef does not clearly state the quantity of all the ingredients, so I supplied them by using my own judgment. Perhaps the chef did not want to fully disclose the well-guarded secret!
Chef Huang-Hong revealed that the secret of the sauce was the ratio of vinegar, sugar and salt (16:8:1). I religiously followed this ratio in recreating the recipe.
The Sichuan peppercorns are stir-fried until fragrant with ginger and garlic. This is not the same as Jamie Oliver's method to pulverize and use it to marinate the chicken.
I find that the flavor of Shaoxing wine is a little too strong, and the flavor of Sichuan peppercorns was not as distinct as Jamie Oliver's recipe. I might have missed something in recreating the recipe, as I had to follow it loosely based on the narration in the video.
You can view the video if you can understand Chinese as English subtitles are not available.
Click the box below to view the recipe:
The following is the summary (and English translation) of the recipe:
Marinate the chicken:
300g of chicken breast meat
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp light soy sauce
1/2 tsp cornstarch (mix with a Tbsp of water to form a slurry)
1 tbsp oil
Preparing the Kung Pao chicken sauce:
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1 tbsp vinegar
1/2 tsp cornstarch (mix with a Tbsp of water to form a slurry)
50g of groundnuts
1/2 tsp Sichuan peppercorn
2 slices of ginger
1 clove of garlic, sliced into thin pieces
8 dry chilies, remove seeds, cut to 2cm length
2 stalks of spring onion, cut to 3 cm length
1. Heat up a large ladle of oil in the wok, deep-fry the marinated chicken over medium heat for two minutes. Remove excess oil from the wok. Keep the chicken aside for use later.
2. Stir-fry the Sichuan peppercorns, dry chilies, garlic and ginger with the remaining oil in the wok over low heat. Stir-fry until aromatic.
3. Add the chicken meat and spring onion. Stir-fry until fragrant.
4. Add the sauce and stir-fry over high heat for a short while until the sauce thicken. Add the ground nuts.
4. Innovative Tweek By Jamie Oliver
Jamie Oliver coated the chicken pieces with ground Sichuan peppercorn and cornflour. This is the first Kung Pao recipe I replicated and was created by a western chef. He did not use any capsicum or onion in this recipe that would dilute the flavor, therefore the flavor of the dry chilli and Sichuan peppercorn is more intense. Honey is used instead of sugar to add a different flavor to the dish.
There are two reasons why I like Jamie's versions of Kung Pao chicken. First, the recipe includes Sichuan peppercorn, which gives the unmistakable Sichuan flavor. Second, he made a few adaptations such as substituting sugar with honey and used boneless chicken thighs instead of breast meat. The result is better and without sacrificing the classic flavor of Kung Pao chicken.
This recipe meets the stringent requirement of the original Sichuan style Kung Pao chicken. First, you taste the sourness and sweetness of the vinegar and honey, then the spiciness of the dry chili, and finally the aftertaste of numbness on your tongue from the Sichuan peppercorns. The vibrant color of the spring onion and the distinct maroon color of the dry chili make it really visually attractive.
5. Original recipe by Szechuan Cuisine (川菜厨房)
This is an authentic Szechuan Cuisine Youtube channel. Since it is entirely narrated in Mandarin, I have transcribed the recipe.
I notice that this recipe does not include Sichuan peppercorn. Since this is authentically Sichuan, I conclude that you can omit the Sichuan peppercorn for not having the numbing tingling feeling on your tongue.
The flavor of this recipe is quite close to chef 王洪 who is also from Sichuan. Therefore, I conclude that this is the taste profile of a truly authentic Kung Pao flavor.
Click the box below to view the recipe:
The transcription of the recipe follows:
Marinate the chicken:
230g of chicken breast (cut to 1.5cm cubes)
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1 tsp salt
1 tsp oil
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1/2 tsp white pepper powder
2 tsp sugar
1 1/2 dark soy sauce
1 tsp vinegar
1 tsp cornstarch
4 dry chilli (cut to 2-3 cm length)
4 slices of ginger
1 stalk of spring onion (cut to 3 cm length)
20g of groundnuts
1. Marinate the chicken with Shaoxing wine, salt and oil for 15 minutes.
2. Combine all the ingredients of the stir-fry sauce and keep aside.
3. Deep-fry the groundnuts over medium heat (about 120 degrees Celcius) until golden brown. Drain and keep aside.
4. Deep-fry the marinated chicken chunks for 2 to 3 minutes until they turn white. Drain the oil and keep aside.
5. Add 3 tbsp of oil into the wok, stir-fry the dry chilli and ginger for 1 to 2 minutes or until aromatic.
6. Add the chicken, spring onion and stir-fry until the meat chunks are cooked.
7. Add the sauce and stir-fry until it thickens.
8. Finally add the groundnuts and stir well. Served.
6. Southwast Asian version by chef Alan Kok
Chef Alan Kok is a Malaysian who has written many Malaysian style Chinese recipes. His Gong Bao chicken (an alternative spelling of Kung Pao) recipe was one of my favorites when I worked in a cafe in 2011 with predominantly Chinese customers. I did minor improvisation on his recipe which can be found in my article "34 Easy Malaysian Chinese Recipes And Sauces".
1. The amount of dry chili is significantly higher than other recipes in this article. The Malaysians definitely have spicier tongues and can endure the ferocity of the fiercely hot flavor.
2. Cashew nuts are used instead of groundnuts.
3. The stir-fry sauce is premixed in a larger quantity.
4. The chicken breast meat is marinated with egg white, which is not used in other recipes in this article.
There are two important take-home messages. First, the taste and texture of cashew nuts are different from those of groundnuts, which I personally love. Secondly, the chunks of breast meat are very tender and smooth, due to the inclusion of egg whites. This is certainly a major plus if chicken breast meat is chosen for the recipe.
Chef Alan likes to pre-mix the sauce in a larger quantity and keep in the freezer in divided portions. This method saved me time in my cafe and is very useful for domestic cooks who prepare this dish often.
Part 3: The fine art of cooking Kung Pao chicken
The recipes above prompted me to investigate the different methods of preparing Kung Pao chicken. This really helped me to decide what and how to go about to formulate my dreamed Kung Pao.
1. Chicken thigh meat is better than breast meat.
Chefs who use thigh meat vouch that it is juicier and the texture is more tender, but traditional Chinese chefs will only use breast meat which has been used since the Ching dynasty.
I prepared two portions of Kung Pao chicken- one with breast meat and the other one with deboned thigh meat. Both were cooked with the identical deep fryer, wok, and stove and of course, follow the identical recipe.
Here is the result:
1. Appearance after marination- The color of the thigh meat is darker. Since the meat will be stir-fried anyway, this will not affect the final presentation much.
2. After deep-frying for two minutes, the breast meat browned better than the thigh meat. Breast meat is more visually appealing in shape and color.
3. The breast meat produces a more attractive Kung Pao chicken dish. The breast meat looks chunkier, glossier and more appetizing than the thigh meat.
3. Chicken thigh meat turns out to be more tender and juicy.
TipUse breast meat for the appealing look.
2. Marinating with egg whites can tenderize the meat.
Chef Alan marinates the chicken breast meat with egg whites to make it more tender and smoother. Although this method is not used in other recipes in my experiment, I have read and watched videos of chefs in China suggesting the same method.
I prepared two portions of Kung Pao chicken according to Jamie's recipe (my favorite so far), one with egg whites and one without.
I did a simple taste test after two minutes of deep-frying. The chicken breast cubes marinated with egg whites are significantly juicier and more tender than the ones without. I think this is a good way to marinate chicken breast meat, as it is tougher than thigh meat.
TipUse egg whites to tenderize meat.
3. Cashew nuts taste better than groundnuts.
The authentic Sichuan style Kung Pao chicken used ground nuts in the recipe. The ground nuts are normally deep-fried in advance.:
1. Boil the ground nuts in water for two minutes.
2. Drain and remove the water by placing the ground nuts on a kitchen towel.
3. Deep-fry the ground nuts in oil on medium heat (about 120 degrees Celcius) until it turns golden brown.
4. Remove the skin of the ground nuts. I found a super easy method on Happy Homemaker88.com to do this. Check it out.
I have prepared both versions of Kung Pao chicken (groundnuts and cashew nuts) and asked for the opinions of some of the customers in my restaurants.
There isn't any clear-cut preference. I think this is a very individual opinion. Ground nuts are the traditional choice, but the appearance of cashew nuts is more attractive. The taste of both nuts compliments the Kung Pao chicken flavor well.
TipUse cashew nuts for flavor & appearance..
My final test is to prepare three sets of Kung Pao chicken based on Jamie Oliver’s recipe. The first set uses ground Sichuan peppercorns to marinate the chicken, the second set uses whole Sichuan peppercorns stir-fried with dry chilli, and the third set was prepared without the Sichuan peppercorn.
Sichuan peppercorns have a complex flavor and produce a tingly numbing sensation on the tongue. Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking concisely describe this;
” They produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue).”
I find that marinating the meat with the ground Sichuan peppercorns yields the best result, although it is not traditionally used by the Chinese chefs. If you think the taste is not what you want (after reading the quote from Harold McGee’s book), it is perfectly fine to omit it. You will find many original Kung Pao chicken recipes from China that do not include Sichuan peppercorn in the recipes.
TipUse ground Sichuan peppercorns for flavor
Part 4: Key features of the best Kung Pao chicken
First I have to make it clear that this is MY best Kung Pao chicken recipe. Nevertheless, I hope my little digging into this famous Sichuan recipe was not a waste.
Here is my recipe:
- 450g chicken breast meat
- 1 tablespoon of Szechuan peppercorns
- 2½ tablespoons of cornflour
- ½ egg whites
- 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons of light soy sauce
- ½ tablespoon of rice vinegar
- 1 heaped tablespoon of runny honey
- ½ teaspoon of Shaoxing wine
- ½ teaspoon of cornflour
- 3 tablespoons of water
- 1 cloves of garlic, cut to thin slices
- 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, cut to thin slices
- 1 stalk of spring onions, cut to about 3cm length
- 6 dried red chilies cut to about 2 cm length, remove seeds
- 30 g of cashew nuts
- Toast the Sichuan peppercorns in a frying pan until lightly golden. Transfer to a mortar and pestle, grind to a fine powder, then sieve into a large bowl, discarding any large, tough bits. Add 2 tablespoons of cornflour and stir to combine.
- Cut the chicken into about 1½ cm square cubes, add the cornflour mixture, vegetable oil and half egg whites. Marinate for 30 minutes.
- Deep-fry the chicken in vegetable oil over medium heat (about 120 degrees Celcius) for about two minutes until golden. Remove from oil.
- Place about 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a wok or frying pan. Add garlic, ginger, dry chilies and stir-fry over medium heat until aromatic.
- Add the chicken and stir-fry until the chicken is cooked through.
- Combine the ingredients of the sauce. Pour the sauce over the chicken and quickly stir.
- Add the spring onion. Stir-fry over high heat for a short while until the sauce thickens.
- Add the roasted cashew nuts.