Here comes Kung Pao chicken! It’s both a classic of Chinese cuisine and a dish mocked as cooked mainly for Westerners. While some see Kung Pao Chicken as one of the most traditional spicy dishes of Sichuan province, home of Sichuan peppercorns and fiery cooking – others deride it as a westernized and far-too-sweety-saucy dish.
True, in many restaurants in both China and the West, Kung Pao chicken can be found both well-cooked with love or carelessly thrown together. The worst ones use ketchup to color and sweeten the sauce – while the best Kung Pao plates consist of juicy chicken pieces, fresh vegetables to contrast the meat, just-rightly-crunchy, slightly salted peanuts and the distinct, mildly numbing flavour of real Sichuan peppercorns.
The home-cooked versions like this one which I learned from a friend usually have a cleaner taste than restaurant versions, and are less dominated by the sauce. I still remember when I first ate Kung Pao Chicken more than 20 years ago when backpacking in western China – just after arriving in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. Chengdu is famous for tea houses, pandas, foggy weather – and Sichuan peppercorns. The guidebook had listed Kung Pao chicken as must-eat meal. Until now, most foreigners living in China love this dish. So did I – and I always wanted to learn how to make it myself. With cauliflower rice, it is easily made low carb without changing a single ingredient of the dish itself!
A little food history 🍗
Like many Chinese meals, Kung Pao Chicken has an origin story. It traces back to a provincial governor during China’s last imperial dynasty named Ding Baozhen (1820-86). Ding was famous for loving stir-fried chicken, and serving it to guests throughout his career in several provinces. Sichuan was his last posting, and it was here that he found the delight of Sichuan peppercorns. Tales of Ding and the chicken dish vary. One story says he ate it in a humble inn and immediately hired the chef. Another tells of a young Ding almost drowning. A man saved him. As governor, Ding later went back to the man’s home to thank him again for saving his life. The grateful man, you guess it, made a chicken dish for Ding. And became his chef.
But why Kung Pao? Ding was also carrying the honorary title Kung Pao, meaning Palace Guardian. So that’s it. For those of you who are food history geeks: Check this recent story in the LA Times with a lot of details about Ding and the dish. There, you read that during the Cultural Revolution, cookbooks purged the dish of its “feudalist” name and called it simply “scarred spicy chicken cubes”. But the imperial governor has popped back up. Because many Chinese love the stories about their dishes whose names are often only explainable through their long history.
If you like to make a Chinese meal for your friends like governor Ding, serve Kung Pao chicken together with other dishes that you all share – such as my stir-fried broccoli with garlic, spicy mapo tofu or crunchy baby bok choy with garlic as in this delicious authentic recipe from The Woks of Life. For lowcarbies, serve cauliflower rice. For other eaters, steamed jasmine rice is the best choice. Get your chopsticks and enjoy!
Apart from the Sichuan peppercorns, the chicken meat is the core of this dish. Chinese people usually prefer meat close to the bone as it is more juicy and has a stronger taste. So most shun chicken breasts in favour of thighs. I have come to agree with that, but de-boning thighs can be a hassle. Many restaurants use chicken breast. So – again, variations are common and permitted! – you can decide which one you prefer. Two large thighs roughly yield the same amount of meat as two breasts (I don’t recommend drumsticks for this recipe – too little yield for too much work).
Recipes also vary in their use of vegetables. Some Kung Pao chicken dishes in restaurants only have generous heaps of leek – but my first version back in Chengdu boasted cucumbers and carrots, and to this day, that’s my favourite – so I am using them for this recipe. They add colour, a fresh crunch and vitamins. If you wonder about cooking cucumber: In Chinese cooking, cucumber is both used raw in cold dishes and occasionally fried. I also do use leek, but just one piece.
For the peanuts, get whole raw and unsalted peanuts. I use them a lot and usually buy larger batches.
Most ingredients actually aren’t very exotic: You need fresh ginger, some garlic, a little low carb sweetener, one teaspoon of tomato puree (No ketchup allowed here!), salt and pepper.
Corn starch for thickening the sauce is entirely optional, depending on your tolerance for carbs. The sauce is a tad more liquid without the starch but no big deal.
Apart from the above, you will need a few more traditional Chinese ingredients. One of them is Chinese rice wine vinegar. If you can’t get that, replace it with plain white vinegar which will do the job just as well.
Soy sauce is a central ingredient in Chinese cooking to give it the distinct tangy flavour and a bit of colour. It is often used not as replacement of salt but as additional ingredient. Soy sauce contains a bit of gluten, so use the Japanese soy sauce tamari as a gluten-free alternative. It is darker, less salty, and has a strong umami flavor. You only need a little bit of either for this recipe – so be carefull not to overdose, especially when using tamari.
You will also need one dried red chili, finely chopped. For less heat, carefully remove the seeds – and avoid to touch your eyes after handling the chili. In Sichuan, most people use dried chilies rather then fresh ones that would quickly turn bad in the hot and humid climate of this province.
The chili paste is for taste as well as red colour. This paste also contains salt, so be careful when seasoning. Actually, if you can get your hands on chili bean paste, grab it! This is the really authentic stuff, and it can be hard to find. It contains slightly salted black beans which give the dish an additional zing. But if not available, traditional red chili paste does the trick as well.
Lastly, you need the famous Sichuan peppercorns. These little peppercorns add a lot of aroma and, when biting on them, a tingling and slightly numbing sensation on your tongue. In Sichuan, they are usually paired with chilies or chili powder, just as they are in this recipe. There are two different kinds – a red one and a greenish-blackish version. Only the black Sichuan pepper creates the tingling that we are looking for. So I recommend you to use this one.
The secret to keep either meat soft and juicy is to dice it before cooking and marinate it with salt for 15 minutes. Seasoning meat before cooking it allows the salt to permeate into the meat and salt it from within. This way, more liquid is retained in the meat as well.
So, first cut and marinate your chicken and set the bowl aside. While the salt is working its way into your chicken cubes, chop up vegetables, ginger, garlic and peanuts. Roast your chopped peanuts in a dry non-stick pan at medium heat until they are emitting scent and slightly browning. Add a pinch of salt and mix well. Set aside.
So now it’s chicken’s turn. Now, add oil to your non-stick wok or pan, and add the meat. Fry the chicken cubes for just a few minutes until golden, but not fully cooked. You take it out at this stage and set it aside. If it is well-done already after this first stage of cooking, it will get dry in the second stage. So if you are not sure, take a bite out and cut through it with a knife. When the inside is still a little pink and not quite cooked but now entirely raw, it is just right. In the second stage, the meat is tossed back into the wok together with all the other ingredients and cooked through.
Use the remaining oil for frying the carrot pieces with a pinch of salt. Again, a few minutes are enough. The carrot pieces should still be crunchy when you take them out. Set carrots aside.
Before you do the final round of stir-frying, prepare a mix of soy sauce, sweetener and vinegar, and a teaspoon of corn starch (if using) in a small bowl. Stir well to form a smooth sauce, and set aside.
Swipe your wok clean and pour in some more oil. Fry leek, ginger, chili and Sichuan peppercorns until fragrant, constantly stirring. Add chili paste, tomato puree and a splash of water. Keep stirring – and fry it until the mix emits a strong scent and slightly changes its colour.
Now, you add the chicken pieces back into the wok for the second stage of cooking. Toss them in together with carrots and cucumber and stir them into the spice mix. Add the soy sauce mix, combine everything well and stir-fry for another minute. Lastly, mix in the peanuts. Done!
To keep your meal low carb, serve your juicy Kung Pao chicken with cauliflower rice that is quick and easy to make yourself at home. A quick tip for the timing: Chop and blend the cauli before making the chicken. After those steps are finished, frying the cauli rice takes only a whirlwind and can be done when the chicken is ready. it needs no more than 2 minutes maximum to be ready.
For a full Asia-style shared dinner, choose a few more Chinese dishes to pair your Kung Pao chicken with. From my website, check out:
- stir-fried baby bok choy with garlic
- delicious and spicy mapo tofu
- quick stir-fried broccoli with garlic
- spicy chinese stir-fried cabbage
For more inspiration on Chinese dishes, blog The Woks of Life by a family of four cooks has plenty, many of them suitable for low carb dining!
Juicy chicken, veggies and peanuts: Stir-fry your own traditional Kung Pao chicken from China’s Sichuan province. Best with the original Sichuan peppercorns!
For 2 servings as a full meal or more when part of a Chinese meal with several dishes
2 chicken breasts or de-boned chicken thighs
1 carrot, diced
1/2 cup diced, peeled cucumber
1/3 cup leek, sliced
2 tbsp whole peanuts, raw (if not available, use roasted ones and skip step 2)
1 inch fresh ginger, sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns
1 dried red chili, finely chopped (and deseeded for less heat)
1 tbsp chili bean paste or chili paste
1 tsp tomato puree
1 tsp soy sauce or tamari
1 tsp Chinese rice wine vinegar (sub with white vinegar if not available)
1 tsp corn starch (optional, for softening the chicken)
1 tsp coconut sugar or brown keto sweetener
sea salt and pepper to taste
rapeseed oil for frying
- About 15 minutes before you plan to start frying, dice the chicken meat and mix with salt. Set aside so the salt diffuses inside the meat. Chop up your other ingredients while waiting.
- Roast your peanuts in a dry non-stick pan at medium heat until emitting scent. Add a pinch of salt and mix well. Set aside.
- When starting to cook, heat oil in a non-stick wok or pan, and add the meat. Fry the chicken cubes for just a few minutes until golden, but not fully cooked. The meat will go back into the wok later. If it is well done by now, it will later become dry. Take chicken out and set aside.
- Use the remaining oil for frying the carrot pieces with a pinch of salt. Again, a few minutes are enough. The carrot pieces should still be crunchy when you take them out. Set carrots aside.
- Before the final round of stir-frying, prepare a mix of soy sauce, sweetener and vinegar, 1 tsp corn starch in a small bowl and set aside.
- Swipe the wok clean and a little more oil. Fry leek, ginger, chili and sichuan peppercorns until fragrant, constantly stirring. Add chili paste and tomato puree and a splash of water. keep stirring, and fry until the mix emits a strong scent and slightly changes its colour.
- Add the chicken pieces back into the wok, together with carrots and cucumber. Add the soy sauce mix, combine everything well and stir-fry for another minute. Lastly, mix in the peanuts.
- Serve immediately with cauliflower rice.
You can replace peanuts with cashew nuts if you’re allergic or just don’t like peanuts. Best to buy raw cashews and roast them yourself in the oven or a pan, just like you would roast the peanuts.
- Category: meal
- Method: stir-fry
- Cuisine: Chinese
- Serving Size: 1 serving for a full meal
- Calories: 431
- Fat: 25.2g
- Carbohydrates: 10.7g net carbs
- Protein: 37.1g
Keywords: kung pao chicken