Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kung Po Chicken Ding (宮保雞丁)

That's the menu name of kung pao chicken that my sister found in a Chinese restaurant in the Hudson Valley. Awesome.

Anyway, the other night I made kung pao chicken and invited a few friends over to help us eat it. Best NT $620 (for ingredients) that I ever spent. One friend provided beer, another saved the day with hua jiao (花椒) when my local Wellcome turned out to be sold out. Not as good as the fresh hua jiao used in the Sichuan restaurant in Dingxi that has my heart, but still good. Two more brought desserts, including a selection from My Sweetie Pie, the awesome bakery owned by Grandma Nitti's.

The meaning of "gong bao" (or as we say in the American language, "kung pao") is "palace guard" - a lot of Chinese food has fancy names like "Buddha Jumps Over A Wall", "Cross The Bridge Noodles", "Eight Treasures", "Four Gods Soup" etc. that don't really tell you what it is. So this one is Palace Guard Diced Chicken (ji ding).

I realize every kung pao chicken recipe is different, but here is mine (serves 6-8)

Ingredients:

Eight breasts of chicken (I bought 4 packages from Wellcome with appeared to have approx. 2 breasts' worth of meat each in them)

Unroasted, unsalted peanuts - at least 2 cups or to taste

1 sprig of green onion, chopped into chunks

2 cloves of garlic finely minced (optional but I would never leave it out)

a few ginger coins - about half a thumb's worth (optional)

1 tall shot glass or larger Chinese tea cup full of Shaoxing rice wine - no you can't use cheap cooking wine or some other kind of cheaper rice wine. NO YOU CANT NO NO NO! Dry sherry would be OK, though, as that will mimic the effect that the flavor has on the sauce, or a really good, rich rice wine.

1/2 cup regular soy sauce or 1 cup low sodium light soy sauce

1 capful of rice vinegar

sprinkle of sugar to taste - I put about half a palmful

salt to taste

1 tbsp lemon juice (optional or to taste - I like the tangy flavor it gives the sauce)

A **** ton of cooking oil...you can use olive oil if you like (I know that sounds weird but it actually works)

sesame oil - 1 tbsp or to taste

If you like - it's my little secret - a sprinkling of squid oil. You can't taste it in the final product, but it lends this amazing, full, rounded flavor even under all the chili (below)

And now, for the best part!

2 handfuls (or to taste) of hua jiao - flower pepper, which creates that classic numbing feeling
2-3 tbsp Lao Gan Ma black bean peanut chili in oil from Guizhou
handfuls and handfuls of dried red chilis - really you can't overdo this, but you can underdo it, so figure out the point where it seems ridiculous then add some more
about 1 tbsp black pepper
3-4 chopped fresh red Sichuan chilis (any small, thin red chili will do)
Some of that not-too-spicy chili paste with garlic and vinegar you can buy cheaply at Wellcome

(In the USA, all you need is some chopped fresh chili, dried chili and hua jiao, though a chili paste would also be good - not all of the above may be easily available)

Process:

Dice the chicken breasts and put in bowl, adding the soy sauce, vinegar, lemon juice, salt to taste, shaoxing wine, sugar, a bit of the garlic, and the chili pastes. Set aside.

In a wok or large pan with huge lip, heat the cooking oil. In it, lightly roast the black pepper, flower pepper, dried chilis, the rest of the garlic and ginger until it smells awesome. Use as much oil as you like - if the whole mess is deep fried it's great, but if you just want to stir fry, that's OK too. I stir-fry because I'd like to not have a heart attack when I'm 34.

Add peanuts. Just dump 'em in.

Cook peanuts until lightly golden. Add chicken. You can add the whole marinade for a more 'cooked' taste, or if you want the raw awesome of all that chili, leave it out for now.

Cook chicken until tender and just exactly done - when I think this is happening I take a larger chunk out, cut it in half on a cutting board and check the center. Do not overcook. Nothing is more gross than overcooked chicken, except maybe overcooked fish.

Quickly add the chopped onion, giving it a few whisks around in the hot mess, before turning off.

Use a slotted spoon or other straining thing to get the chicken, onion and dried chilis onto the plate while leaving behind the **** ton of oil. If you did not add the marinade to the mess, dump as much of it over now as you like. (adding it while cooking makes it taste 'cooked', adding it after makes it taste 'raw' - I like it both ways.)

Breathe fire, young grasshopper!



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