In Washington, D.C. there is an abundance of Chinese restaurants (as well as a historic city dweller rivalry between City Lights of China and the Meiwah) but the restaurants I speak of are as diverse as China’s provinces.
If you want spice, you order from a Szechaun restaurant, if you want royal dishes fit for an emperor, go to a Peking restaurant, and if you’re craving sweet and sour dishes, your best bet is to order from a Cantonese restaurant. Now I could go on and on about my favorite Chinese restaurants in and around D.C. (as well as the disappearance of Chinatown) but I think I’ll save that for another time. What I’d rather talk to you about is making Chinese food at home.
Since relocating to Florida, I’ve been saddened by what is often masqueraded as Chinese food. Disappointed is another a good word to describe my feelings. My friend Judi Gallagher shares in my grief. When did a flavorful, spicy, and brilliant cuisine turn into a high sugar, oily, greasy and overcooked meal stuffed into plastic cartons? No, my friends, that is not Chinese food, not in the least.
I find Chinese food to be fresh, light and bright. The flavors of Chineses dishes should sing together as all of the ingredients dance around in a wok. The great Martin Yan taught Americans that when it comes to Chinese cooking: “Appearance, aroma and taste are non-negotiable.” He is a big advocate of yin and yang in cooking, that is, flavors and spices must equally balance each other out. Adding to this is another fantastic chef, Ming Tsai, who taught us that sweetness can be found by using organic honey, and spicy chili peppers can play nicely with a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime to create a zesty and vibrant finish.
Kung Pao, which hails from the Sichaun province and called Gong Bao, is one of the easiest ways to learn Chinese cuisine. Once you’ve mastered the sauce, you can use it to dress vegetables, chow mein noodles, and meats or seafood like chicken, pork, shrimp or scallops. The great thing about Kung Pao sauce is that a little goes a very long way! You won’t need much to dress your dish, and in this case, less is always better.
Now, a word about spice. Some people love to go crazy with chili in their Kung Pao. When I was growing up, I used to call it Kung Pow Pow because of all the chili peppers used! While it’s your perogative to decide on the level of spice, I have to agree with Chef Yan about yin and yang.
My recipe below is a very mild but very balanced use of spice. Taste while you cook and adjust the heat and seasonings as you see fit. I use Huy Fong sambal (red chili paste) at the start and add dried Chinese chili peppers at the end. Sambal is found in most grocery stores, right next to the Sriracha sauce. If your grocery store does not have an international section, make a trip to the nearest Asian market as they will definitely carry it.
I’ve also substituted a few ingredients based on my personal taste, preferences and what’s available. Instead of traditional peanuts, I suggest cashews, and instead of Szechaun peppercorns, I suggest dried chili peppers. While most traditional recipes use Chinese sherry, I use freshly squeezed limes and palm sugar. My apologies in advance to the purists. I’m not Chinese.
Kung Pao Chicken
Feeds 4 people easily
2 lbs. chicken thighs, bones and skin removed, cut into 1 inch pieces
2 cups carrots, peeled, small dice
2 cups asparagus, cut small (or 1 cup celery, small dice)
2 cups red bell pepper, small dice (ribs and seeds removed)
1 1/2 tablespoons palm sugar (yes, I know this is Thai) or 2 tablespoons of honey
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons sambal (chili paste)
2 tablespoons sesame oil
Zest and juice of one lime
1/4 cup cornstarch
4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
3 tablespoons ginger, minced
1 1/4 cups cashew nuts, rough chop
Canola oil for stir frying
Salt and Pepper to taste
Dried Chinese Peppers* (pound slightly with mortar and pestle) I realize these are not in keeping with traditional Szechuan peppercorns (but those are really hard to find!) Use them if you can find them.
Brown or White Rice (steamed) OR cooked Chinese noodles OR Cold lettuce cups
Cut and prep all of the ingredients before cooking, including the sauce, and steamed rice, noodles or lettuce cups if desired. Once you heat up the wok, you’ll move along quickly!
Mix the palm sugar (or honey), soy sauce, sesame oil, sambal, zest and lime juice together with a whisk. Be sure the sugar is fully dissolved. Set aside.
In a large bowl, coat the chicken pieces with the cornstarch and stir well to combine. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Heat a wok over high heat with two tablespoons of canola oil. Working in two batches, stir fry the chicken until cooked through, about 4 to 6 minutes for each batch. Hold the cooked chicken on a clean dish and set aside.
Add another tablespoon of oil to the wok. Add the garlic and ginger and give it a quick stir (be careful not to burn) then add all the remaining vegetables. Stir fry vegetables until they are slightly tender, about 2 minutes. Add the sauce mixture and simmer for one minute more.
Return the chicken to the wok and combine thoroughly. If using Chinese peppers, now is the time to add them. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Add the cashews, stir once more, then serve with rice, noodles or crisp lettuce cups.