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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The irresistible thrill of kung pao

Flashes of chile heat in a salty, sour, sweet sauce make every bite of kung pao a little thrill.

By Genevieve Ko

A steaming plate of kung pao anything feels like the part of a fireworks show when small, bright bursts pop without deafening booms. Surprising but not jolting, it’s a dish filled with beats of excitement: You don’t know when they’re coming, but they’re always welcome.

With kung pao, that likable little thrill comes from the sauce’s flashes of chile heat in a glossy swirl of salty, sour and sweet that coats stir-fried chicken, shrimp, tofu, vegetables and, often, peppers and nuts. Every bite swings a little spicy or chewy, tangy or crisp. And there are endless variations, so the total number of possible kung pao experiences is something like infinity.

The dish’s defining elements are chiles and a sweetened soy-vinegar sauce, but most everything else is up for grabs, as it has been from the start. That makes it a meal you can cook night after night at home, where you can calibrate the seasonings to your liking and end up with something that tastes both new and familiar. (It also doesn’t hurt that it takes less than 20 minutes from start to finish.)

The origins of kung pao — transliterated today as “gong bao” — are murky, but the original source of the name is undisputed. It stems from a late-19th-century governor-general of Sichuan and gong bao (“palace guardian”), who is said to have loved this dish. In exploring the dish’s history, Fuchsia Dunlop, a British food writer who has expertly covered Chinese cuisine in English, notes that it may have been created in Sichuan, Guizhou or Shandong, with each province laying claim to it. But she notes, too, that there are countless versions from region to region, and even from cook to cook.

Knowing that there is no single way to make the dish, while simultaneously learning more about it, freed me from the fear of not preparing it “authentically.” I’m Chinese American and was raised on the food and in the culture, but Dunlop studied professional cooking in regions of China I’ve never even visited. Learning from the well-researched recipes in her cookbooks helped me return to how I long cooked Chinese dishes — by scent, sound, taste and practical needs — and gave me the confidence to create my own versions of beloved meals.

The first time I prepared kung pao chicken, I followed a recipe handwritten by my Taiwanese American friend Grace Han, who transcribed instructions from her mother, Pearl Han. Grace and I grew up together as neighbors, and our parents still live next to each other, on lots close enough that I could always smell what Auntie Pearl was cooking. And it smelled so good, the tingle of chiles, the urgency of garlic, the warmth of ginger as soft and bright as the Southern California sun setting behind our homes.

With the perspective of adulthood, I couldn’t understand how she pulled together those meals after long days of working and watching us, but, when I saw Grace’s notes, I understood. Auntie Pearl pared down recipes, including this one for kung pao chicken, to its essentials for those busy nights — and it’s exactly right when dinner needs to get on the table as quickly as possible.

This kung pao shrimp may have more ingredients, but it doesn’t take much longer. The sea saltiness and snap of the shrimp sharpen against a confetti of sweet bell pepper. Peanuts, fried to bring out a toasty earthiness, deliver crunch among the slips of garlic and scallions. Dried chiles lace the dish with heat and are great on their own, but throwing in floral, citrusy Sichuan pepper adds the welcome tingly sensation known as ma la. Once you try the dish with it, you can decide whether you want more or less, as you should with all of the ingredients, to make — and enjoy — the kung pao you’re craving.

Kung pao shrimp

The name of this dish is now written in English as gong bao shrimp, and this recipe takes inspiration from the American Chinese versions that come from the Sichuan province of China. Here, flashes of chile heat shine in a glossy swirl of a salty, sour and sweet sauce. With a confetti blend of shrimp, peppers and peanuts, each mouthful is a little spicy and chewy, savory and crisp. The deep malty tang comes from Chinkiang vinegar, a jet-black condiment from China that is traditionally fermented from grains and aged in clay. It’s key to this dish and also delicious for dipping dumplings, saucing noodles and dressing vegetables. (Balsamic vinegar, similarly fermented and aged from grape juice in barrels, is a fun, fruity substitute.) With both vegetables and protein, this one-wok stir-fry is a complete meal with steamed rice.

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 15 minutes


1 pound peeled and deveined medium shrimp, thawed if frozen

2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine or dry sherry

2 teaspoons cornstarch


2 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons Chinkiang (black) vinegar or balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, coarsely ground, plus more to taste

1 red or orange bell pepper

5 garlic cloves

1/4 cup neutral oil, such as grapeseed

1/2 cup unsalted roasted peanuts

3/4 cup small dried red chiles (23 grams; see tip)

3 large scallions, cut into 1/2-inch lengths


1. Mix the shrimp, Shaoxing wine, 1 teaspoon cornstarch and a pinch of salt in a bowl until the shrimp are evenly coated. Let stand while you prepare the other ingredients.

2. Stir the sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, Sichuan pepper and remaining teaspoon cornstarch in a separate bowl. Dice the bell pepper and thinly slice the garlic. Have all your ingredients ready next to the stove.

3. Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat for 15 seconds. Add the peanuts and stir until browned in spots, 30 to 60 seconds. Add the bell pepper and garlic, and sprinkle with salt. Cook, stirring, until the pepper is bright and the garlic starts to become translucent, about 30 seconds. Add the chiles and stir well, then add the shrimp with its marinade. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are curled and just opaque, 2 to 3 minutes.

4. Add the scallions and stir until glossy, about 15 seconds, then add the sauce. Cook, stirring, until the sauce thickens and coats everything evenly, about 1 minute. If any of the starchy sauce has stuck to the bottom of the pan, add a splash of water and scrape up any browned bits. Taste and add more Sichuan pepper if you’d like. Immediately transfer to a dish and serve hot.

TIP: The small dried red chiles typically used in kung pao dishes are available in Chinese markets. Any small dried red chiles work, though they do range in heat. For a similar spice level, use chiles de árbol.

Easy kung pao chicken

Sweet, sour and a little spicy, this meal tastes like home — specifically the home of Pearl Han, a talented Taiwanese American cook who naturally streamlined dishes while raising three kids and managing a busy career. Her younger daughter, Grace Han, shared this recipe: “quick, easy and my mom’s favorite.” Dried chiles sizzle in oil first to impart heat to the whole dish, then chicken browns in a single layer — no high-heat stir-frying necessary — to create a tasty caramelized crust before the pieces are flipped together. Coated in a dead-simple kung pao sauce that delivers the dish’s signature salty tang, the chicken begs to be spooned over steamed rice. Serve with stir-fried vegetables as well for a complete meal.

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 15 minutes


1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch chunks

3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons cornstarch

Salt and ground black or Sichuan pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons Chinkiang (black) vinegar or balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 cup neutral oil, such as grapeseed

1/2 cup small dried red chiles (15 grams; see tip)


1. Mix the chicken, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, and a big pinch of salt and pepper in a bowl until evenly coated. Let sit while you prepare the sauce.

2. Stir the vinegar, sugar, remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce and 1 teaspoon cornstarch in a small bowl.

3. Combine the oil and chiles in a wok or large nonstick skillet, and set over medium heat. When the chiles start to sizzle and brown, about 15 seconds, push them to one side of the pan. Add the chicken to the other side all at once and spread in a single, even layer. Cook, without moving the pieces, until the bottoms are dark golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. If the chiles start to blacken, put them on top of the chicken so that they don’t burn.

4. Using a large spatula, flip the chicken in portions. Cook just until the meat almost loses all of its pinkness, 1 to 2 minutes more. Stir the sauce and pour it into the pan. Stir until the sauce thickens and slicks the chicken evenly. Immediately transfer to a plate and serve hot.

TIP: The small dried red chiles typically used in kung pao dishes are available in Chinese markets. Any small dried red chiles work, though they do range in heat. For a similar spice level, use chiles de árbol.

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