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Chinese-American - kung pao

"just because it's a Chinese-American standard, complete with slightly-gloppy-sauce and mild spicing doesn't make diced chicken with peppers and peanuts any less delicious" J. Kenji López-Alt

This all started with the dish pictured above Kung pao chicken from last month's Coles Magazine. It, along with various other batch cooked meals, just looked tempting, and then I found that it was a standard take-away Chinese dish, so decided to look further. It seems that it is also a standard in America, where an American/Chinese cuisine has developed over time from the early days of Chinese workers in the gold rush years . However, it's not one of those dishes that has evolved so far that it just cannot be found in China. This one is more a dish that is still found in its native China, but which is not quite the same when found in America.

"kung pao chicken, the Sichuan classic made with tons of hot dried chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, and peanuts in a vinegary sauce is where this dish finds its roots. Trade out most of the dried chiles for diced bell peppers and celery, use white vinegar in place of the dark Chinkiang vinegar, and you're basically there." J. Kenji López-Alt/Serious Eats


His version of Take-out style Kung Pao chicken shown here, begins with:


"finely minced garlic, ginger, and scallions, the holy trinity of Chinese-American cuisine." J. Kenji López-Alt

Which is interesting because the Australian version in the June Coles Magazine has no garlic and no celery but does have honey and hoisin sauce. Mind you another recipe from Coles leaves out the hoisin sauce and adds in garlic. Neither of their versions features the, some say, crucial Sichuan peppercorns however, but that's probably because they don't sell them.


It seems Australians don't do celery. Which begs the question of whether these fusion cuisines differ according to the country in which they have their home. So I looked further.


In Australia, the two top food bloggers - Recipe Tin Eats and Café Delites didn't like celery either. Nagi Maehashi of Recipe Tin Eats, maintained that sichuan peppers were:


"the ingredient in Kung Pao sauce that makes it Kung Pao and not just any type of stir fry sauce."


Which is an option that many others seem to share. Her version also looks a bit gloopy in a Chinese sort of way and there also seems to be more sauce than I think is normal - and no capsicum - just spring onions in the vegetable corner. Karina of Café Delites, also likes the Coles hoisin sauce idea and the sichuan peppercorns, but also ignores celery. Adam Liaw however, a Malaysian Chinese, leaves out the sichuan peppercorns and also the celery. To be fair to him he doesn't claim his version is Kung pao chicken, but merely a version of it that he calls Cashew nut chicken. So to conclude - Australians don't like celery, but lots of them like hoisin sauce and sichuan peppercorns - and these three do look similar.

And what about the English? Felicity Cloake when making her perfect version quotes various Chinese authorities, and like Nagi Maehashi, leaves out the vegetables, just sticking to those spring onions, but she does insist on the Sichuan peppercorns. Jamie Oliver's Kung pao chicken does the same - although he adds in some honey too.


So where does the original come from?


Well the 19th century gentleman shown here is generally said to be the reason for the name at least, although I don't thing anyone has said that he invented the dish. His name was Din Baozhen and he was an official in the late Qing Dynasty with the title of Kung-Pao which means something like 'Palace Guardian'.


"The name Kung Pao chicken is derived from this title, while the use of the character 丁dīng in the name of the dish is a pun on his surname Dīng, a Moderately common Chinese surname that can also be read to mean "small cube" (like the cubes the chicken is diced into for the dish)." Wikipedia


Speaking of small cubes Felicity Cloake used chicken thighs rather than the more often suggested chicken breasts, but warns:


"having tried thighs in Andrew Wong and Harry Eastwood’s recipes, I have to admit, reluctantly, they’re not ideal for the amateur wok handler, because the darker meat takes longer to cook through." Felicity Cloake


So if you use thighs, cut the pieces small.


Going back to our man Ding Baozhen - although many associate the dish with him I did not see one single reason why the dish is named after him - or his position. Was he the one and only 'palace guardian'? Surely not. The dish is also called Gong Bao, which also seems to have something to do with his name.


Whatever the origins, everyone seems to agree that it was firstly a Sichuan dish - hence the peppercorns, although, of course, as well as those fusion cuisine versions there are very many regional versions in China. So, as always, does it matter that much what you put into it?


"There are good reasons why everyone loves kung pao chicken. It’s got so many flavors going on: tangy, sweet, and salty with a hint of heat. The art is putting in the right amount of each ingredient to come up with that winning flavor combination." Judy/The Woks of Life


A long time ago now I featured the website The Woks of Life which is the child of an American/Chinese family. The recipe for Kung pao chicken that they present is from Judy - the mother and she claims it to be authentic - although perhaps from Beijing. A plainer version than some with just the spring onions and the nuts. No celery.


Another common feature which I have not mentioned so far, is the 'velveting of the chicken':


"Most recipes marinate the raw meat briefly before cooking, usually in a mixture of starch and water seasoned with soy sauce and rice wine – the classic “velveting” technique that helps form a protective barrier between the chicken and the hot wok keeping it, well, soft as velvet." Felicity Cloake


Nearly everyone does that.


Having now explored a few versions I think the more authentic ones do not have any extra vegetables, it's just the chicken, the nuts, spring onions and the various sauces, vinegars and wines that are added for flavour. And those Sichuan peppercorns of course. The rest of us, of course, have added in what we like and what we think would go well - mostly capsicum - which is what happens when foods move from one country to another:


"Versions commonly found in the West, called Kung Pao chicken, Kung Po, or just chicken chili and garlic, consist of diced, marinated chicken, stir-fried with orange or orange juice, ginger, garlic, chicken broth, sugar, cooking oil, corn starch, and salt and pepper to taste. Many other vegetables may be added, such as onion, bell pepper or carrots. The dish often includes or is garnished with whole roasted peanuts. Instead of chicken, Western variations sometimes substitute other meat such as pork, duck, fish, shrimp, or tofu." Wikipedia


I found a few with noodles as well.


And my 'starter' recipe from Coles, they say, costs a mere $2.65 per portion. So you can't really go past that can you?



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