Even though Chinese food was the first Asian cuisine embraced by Americans, it has steadily succumbed to the fierce competition and more ‘exotic’ flavors of Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Thai. Your standard storefront Chinese joint might be passe, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some great Chinese dishes to be had–especially when you get to neighborhoods like Flushing, Queens, where restaurants tend to specialize in regional cooking.
My favorite province would have to be Sichuan, a region in southwest China known for it’s spicy cuisine and prodigious use of chilies. Of course you’ve heard of the legendary Sichuan Hot Pot, a steaming cauldron of red chilies into which tofu, meats, and vegetables are dipped and eaten. Another fairly well-known Sichuan dish would be kung pao chicken, which I love for its burnt chilies and roasted peanuts. This is one fast and easy dish that you don’t need to leave home to savor.
Provided, of course, that you have all the ingredients at hand. There are a few special items you’ll need for this one that will require a prior trip to the Asian store, but once you have them on hand, quick and tasty stir-frys are right there within your reach. (And it goes without saying that you have a wok.)
Though I have tried many different recipes for kung pao, this one comes from Fuchsia Dunlop’s excellent cookbook, Land Of Plenty: Authentic Sichuan Recipes Personally Gathered In The Chinese Province of Sichuan. Dunlop explored Sichaun province and its cuisine like I did Sri Lanka’s, and her efforts certainly paid off well.
Gong Bao (Kung Pao) Chicken
2 boneless chicken breasts (about 2/3 pound)
3 cloves of garlic and an equivalent amount of fresh ginger
5 scallions (white parts only)
1 green bell pepper, chopped (optional) [my addition]
2 Tbsp. peanut oil
a generous handful of dried red chilies (at least 10)
1 Tsp. whole Sichuan pepper
2/3 cup roasted unsalted peanuts
marinade: 1 tsp. Shaoxing rice wine or medium dry sherry
1 1/2 tsp. potato flour or 2 1/4 tsp. cornstarch
1 Tbsp. water
sauce: 3 tsp. sugar
3/4 tsp. potato flour or 1 1/8 tsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. dark soy sauce
1 tsp. light soy sauce
3 tsp. Chinkiang or black Chinese vinegar
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 Tbsp. chicken stock or water
1.) Cut the chicken as evenly as possible into 1/2 inch strips and then cut these into small cubes.
2.) Peel and thinly slice the garlic and ginger, and chop the scallions into chunks as long as their diameter (to match the chicken cubes). Snip the chilies in half or into 2-inch sections. Wearing rubber gloves, discard as many seeds as possible.
3.) Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl—if you dip your fingers in, you can taste the sweet-sour base of the gong bao flavor.
4.) Season the wok, then add 2 Tbsp. of oil and heat over high flame. When the oil is hot but not yet smoking, add the chilies and Sichaun pepper and stir fry briefly until they are crisp and the oil is spicy and fragrant. Take care not to burn the spices (you can remove the wok from the heat if necessary to prevent overheating).
5.) Quickly add the chicken and fry over a high flame, stirring constantly. As soon as the chicken cubes have separated, add the ginger, garlic, and scallions and continue to stir fry for a few minutes until they are fragrant and the meat is cooked through (test one of the larger pieces to make sure).
6.) Give the sauce a stir and add it to the wok, continuing to stir and toss. As soon as the sauce has become thick and shiny, add the peanuts, stir them in, and serve.
Variations: This same dish can be made with pork or shrimp; and cashews or walnuts can be substituted for peanuts.
serves 2-4 (with rice)