The Elusive Kung Pao Chicken
How good the Kung Pao Chicken is at a Szechuan restaurant is my gauge for grading that restaurant. All Chinese restaurants I've been to here in Seattle serve it, whether they are in the Szechuan category or not. There are so many versions of it, but most fall short of the standard set by restaurants I've eaten at in Taiwan, Hong Kong or even New York. When I was living in Taiwan after college, we frequented a restaurant called The Welcoming Economic. It looked to be a family run restaurant, very inexpensive, and partially self serve. Bring a large group, get some cold beers, order up to your hearts desire and never pass on the kung pao chicken. On our tight budget, with dishes costing around $2.00, we could feast. And we did.
The essential tool in Chinese cooking is super large fire power. We could sit at our table in the restaurant and hear them turning on their burners. It sounds like jet engines, like they were pumping oxygen into the flame to make it rise higher. When we remodeled our kitchen, I installed what my friends have dubbed, the Death Star. It is a Viking 24" wok burner firing at 27,500 BTU. Better than a regular burner at 15,000 BTU, but still not close to the fire power of a commercial kitchen. I did a quick internet search just to see what those burners have in the sense of BTU and found this little statement: "A high power 32 tip jet 160,000 BTU burner can be added for holes 18" or larger"
Clearly, I am outgunned. But I continue to try to master my favorite Chinese dishes and tonight, it was a little kung pao chicken.
3/4 Pound chicken thighs, diced into 3/4" pieces
1/4 cup green onions cut into 1" long pieces
1 Tbsp chopped garlic
1 tsp Szechuan peppercorns
1 tsp red chili flakes
1 Tbsp water, dark soy sauce, white vinegar
1/2 Tbsp sesame oil
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp corn starch
1/4 cup peanuts
In Szechaun cooking, the meat is often passed through a vat of hot oil to par cook it. I go with the boiling water route to save the mess and the health. Shocking, I know, but I do draw the line somewhere. So, boil the chicken in water until about half way cooked. Combine the water, soy, vinegar, oil, sugar and cornstarch. First, turn your hood vent on to high. Warn your children and pets they may want to leave the kitchen area. With your burner on high, heat your wok to smoking hot and add in 1-2 tablespoons of cooking oil. I use a well seasoned carbon steel wok for high heat cooking. Toss in garlic, peppercorns and chili flakes. I like to use chili flakes so I don't have to pick out the individual large chilies. The chilies look better for presentation, but for the family, I'll go for eating ease and safety. Give it a stir and add in the chicken, green onions and combined sauce. Give it a quick stir and let it cook for 30 seconds or a minute before you stir again so everything can sear. Repeat once more and toss in peanuts to finish. Fry quickly and serve immediately.