If you haven’t eaten kung pao chicken in the past 10 years, there’s a good chance you’ve never had the real thing. I hadn’t, until recently.
In the ’90s, the dish was my go-to Chinese restaurant order. The diced chicken and vegetables, peanuts, and vaguely sweet and sour sauce were cozily familiar, while the fiery dried chiles scattered throughout supplied an appealing undercurrent of danger. But eventually the novelty wore off, as did any urge to make it myself.
Then a few months ago, I ordered kung pao in a restaurant and was delighted by the addition of Sichuan peppercorns, which not only imbued the dish with a woodsy fragrance and citrusy tang but also created a tingling sensation on my lips and tongue, a perfect complement to the heat of the chiles. In fact, the interplay of peppercorns and chiles is so foundational to Sichuan cuisine that it has a name: ma la, which means “numbing heat.” Sichuan peppercorns were banned in the United States from 1968 to 2005 because they were mistakenly believed to carry a virus that could endanger the American citrus crop, so these tiny dried fruits of the prickly ash tree had been tragically absent from my ’90s kung pao. But now, back where they belonged, they snapped the flavors of kung pao chicken into focus.
My interest in the dish was reawakened, and I was eager to devise my own version of kung pao chicken. I knew that chiles and buzzy peppercorns weren’t enough to ensure success, though. The chicken would have to be juicy and the peanuts crunchy, with a bit of crisp, cooling vegetable matter in there for contrast. And I wanted a potent glaze that lightly coated—not heavily sauced—each piece but still delivered flavor to every bite.
Most recipes called for boneless, skinless chicken, either breasts or thighs. I went with thighs because they’re not only more resistant to overcooking but also more flavorful, so they’d make a better match for the strong flavors of kung pao. I tossed the diced thighs in a marinade that, from my research, appeared to be pretty universal: savory soy sauce; sweet rice wine; floral, earthy white pepper; and a bit of cornstarch that would help the marinade cling to the meat and lend some body to the glaze when cooked.
Vegetables aren’t a major player in kung pao chicken, but a small amount adds welcome color and crunch. Celery and scallions are both common, and I diced them to match the size of the smallest element of the dish: the peanuts. Cutting everything to the same size is a hallmark of kung pao chicken. It provides visual harmony and allows the diner to experience multiple flavors and textures in every bite. I also grated some ginger, minced some garlic, and whisked up a quick glaze composed of a bit more soy; complex, fruity black vinegar; dark brown sugar; and some toasted sesame oil to bolster the nutty flavor of the roasted peanuts. I kept the volume small so I’d end up with just enough to coat all the components.
To start, I heated a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a nonstick skillet and added a generous handful of dried arbol chiles (a fine substitute for the traditional bright red “facing heaven,” or chao tian jiao, chiles) and some ground Sichuan peppercorns. When they were fragrant and just starting to darken, I added the peanuts and then the garlic and ginger. The last two clumped up in the hot skillet, but I figured they’d disperse once I added the chicken.
Because all the little pieces of chicken were a pain to turn constantly, I introduced a small innovation: I covered the skillet. This way, the pieces cooked from the top as well as the bottom. When the chicken was mostly cooked, I added the celery. After pouring in the sauce and reducing it to a glaze consistency, I stirred in the scallions, killed the heat, and took a taste.
Let’s start with the positives: The chicken thighs were tender and juicy throughout, the celery and scallions were crisp, and the dark glaze coated everything nicely. On the negative side, the peanuts were soggy and soft. And those sticky clumps of garlic and ginger hadn’t spread out as I had hoped and had instead collected all the Sichuan peppercorn dust, forming sneaky sensory bombs. As for the heat level, despite my free hand with the chiles, it was almost nonexistent.
I had a hunch about why my arbol chiles, which I knew to be impressively spicy, weren’t imparting much “pow” to my kung pao. To test it, I touched an intact chile to my tongue. Nothing. Then I opened up a chile and tasted the interior. Ouch. There was plenty of heat on the inside since most capsaicin resides in the ribs of chiles, but there wasn’t enough time or moisture in my recipe to coax that flavor through the tough skin.
So for my next batch, I halved the chiles lengthwise to expose as much of their spicy interiors as possible. (But to ensure that I didn’t overwhelm my tasters with heat, I jostled the chiles until all the seeds fell out.) And to aid the distribution of the grated ginger and minced garlic, I put them in a small bowl and stirred in 1 tablespoon of oil.
I also tweaked the order of operations a bit. Because I wanted the peanuts to be as toasty and crunchy as possible, I cooked them first in a teaspoon of oil and then transferred them to a plate, where they would continue to crisp as they cooled. Then I stir-fried the halved chiles and the ground peppercorns and added the ginger and garlic, which dispersed with minimal persuasion, thanks to their coating of oil. Then the chicken went in. I covered the skillet, and when the chicken was mostly cooked, I added the celery. The sauce went in, and only when it was fully reduced did I add the peanuts, along with the scallions, so both would maintain their texture.
With its lightly glazed components and hallmark sensations of spice, tingle, crunch, crispness, and juiciness in every bite, this version of kung pao was as real as it gets.