Skip take-out and make this Kung Pao Chicken at home! This spicy, sweet Chinese stir-fry is made with hot chilis, Szechwan peppercorns, garlic, ginger, and unsalted peanuts. Serve with rice for a weeknight meal.
Photography Credit:Elise Bauer
What is Kung Pao Chicken?
Kung Pao Chicken (also known as Gong Bao or Kung Pow) is probably the dish most associated with Chinese food in America. This dish is also one of the most authentic dishes on the menus of Chinese restaurants and owes its fiery flavor to two particular ingredients: chilis and Szechuan peppercorns.
If you like spice, then this is your dish. You can use any dried red chilies and the Szechwan peppercorns are optional, though the dish isn’t the same without them and there isn’t a good substitute. Other key ingredients in this dish are sesame oil, garlic, ginger, and unsalted peanuts.
Like any stir-fry, this is quick, cheap, and flavorful. It’s also an exemplary example of Szechwan cuisine due to its combination of sweet, sour, salty, and hot tastes. Serve it with rice and a hearty dark beer for a weeknight meal!
The Chilies for Kung Pao Chicken
The chili peppers most commonly used for Chinese cooking are Tien Tsin chilies, named for their province of origin. They’re quite hot and possess an earthy pungency. If you can’t find this exact variety, you can substitute any dried red chiles.
Szechwan (or Sichuan) peppercorns were actually banned by the FDA until 2005 due to their potential to carry citrus canker. Now they’re permitted for import but only after they’ve been heat-treated.
Rather than being hot or pungent, Szechwan peppercorns are somewhat citrusy and create a slight numbing, tingling sensation as opposed to the burning, hot sensations of peppers and chilies (think the tingle on your tongue from a carbonated drink).
You can find both spices in Asian markets or you can order them easily online (Penzeys is a great source for both the Tien Tsin peppers and the Szechwan peppercorns). You can also find the Shaoxing rice wine and Chinkiang vinegar at Asian markets or order them online, though sherry and apple cider vinegar make good substitutes.
The Best Chicken for this Stir-Fry
Boneless skinless chicken breasts work just fine for this recipe, though you could swap in boneless skinless thighs if you prefer. The exact weight of your chicken breasts doesn’t matter too much; just get two good-sized breasts and you’ll be fine.
More Chinese Take-Out Favorites to Make at Home!
- Easy Chicken Lo Mein
- Quick and Easy Egg Drop Soup
- Fire Cracker Chicken
- Broccoli Beef Stir Fry
- Sweet and Sour Chicken
Kung Pao Chicken Recipe
For the marinade:
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sherry, or Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 tablespoon water
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
For the sauce:
- 3 teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar, or 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon water
- 3 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
For the chicken:
- 2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 8 dried chili red peppers (preferably Tien Tsin variety)
- 2 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon whole Szechwan peppercorns (optional)
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
- 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 6 green onions, chopped
- 2/3 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts
1 Marinate chicken: Mix together the marinade ingredients. Chop the chicken into bite sized pieces, toss them in the marinade, and set aside.
2 Whisk together sauce ingredients: Combine all the ingredients for the sauce, whisking well to ensure the cornstarch is fully incorporated. Set aside.
3 Prep the seasonings: Break the chilies open and discard the seeds inside, then cut them into a few large pieces (the dish will already be very hot, keeping the seeds will make it near inedible).
4 Stir-fry chilies and peppercorns: Place the 2 1/2 tablespoons of sesame oil in a wok or large sauté pan and place over medium-high heat. Add the chilies and Szechwan peppercorns, if using. Stir-fry for a few second until they become fragrant being careful not to burn them.
5 Add the chicken and aromatics: Add the chicken. As soon as the pieces have separated, add the ginger, garlic, and green onions. Stir-fry for a few minutes until the chicken is cooked through.
6 Finish the stir fry: Add the sauce and toss. When the sauce becomes thick, add the peanuts, toss, and serve.
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