Kung Pao Chicken
Sep 17, 2023
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Kung pao chicken is the best 30-minute Chinese stir-fry dinner at home. Juicy chicken bits are tossed in a glossy tangy-sweet-savory sauce, then served over warm rice to soak up all that delicious flavor. Make sure to read through all the tips below for ingredient swaps and watch the video to visually see how this dish comes together!
What Is Kung Pao Chicken?
When you spot a ton of dried chili peppers in a Chinese dish, you know it’s a classic Sichuan dish at heart. This province in China is known for creating spiced, bold flavors accentuated by whole-dried chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. It’s layered and complex (though easy to whip up) and I’ll chat more about the distinctiveness of kung pao flavor below.
But note that America’s thick and sticky take-out version (like General Tso’s) isn’t exactly authentic. Authentic kung pao chicken is more so a dry stir-fry gently coated with sauce — similar to my go-to chicken stir-fry or the ginger cashew chicken from my cookbook. Kung pao chicken isn’t meant to be overly saucy.
Kung Pao Chicken Recipe Ingredients
Most of the ingredients can be found at your usual grocery store. But for a few items such as the whole dried chilies or Sichuan peppercorns, you’ll can stop by a Chinese market or order them online (I’ve linked them for you in the recipe card below).
- Chicken: Boneless skinless chicken breasts are most often used in this recipe, but chicken thighs are great for extra tender results.
- Cornstarch (or Arrowroot Powder): To give the chicken that delicious silky texture, you’ll need cornstarch or arrowroot powder. It also helps to thicken up the kung pao sauce.
- Soy Sauce: Traditionally, this recipe calls for dark and regular soy sauce. But if you don’t have dark soy sauce, use regular soy sauce. If you’re gluten-free, use tamari soy sauce or coconut aminos.
- Shaoxing Wine: This will make this taste like restaurant-style Chinese food. It’s sweet, nutty, and slightly earthy. If you don’t have Shaoxing wine, dry sherry is a good substitute.
- Rice Vinegar: I’m using rice vinegar in today’s recipe, but you could also use Chinese black vinegar if you have it.
- Toasted Sesame Oil: Just a little bit of this oil really deepens and enhances the flavor.
- Sichuan Peppercorn Powder: This spice is key to nailing that distinctive, slightly tongue-numbing, Sichuan flavor (watch the video below to see what I mean).
- Dried Red Chili Peppers: This is what imparts spicy heat to the dish. That is, if you slice them up. For more information on the dried chilies, check out the section below.
- Sugar & Aromatics: Any type of sugar works, but I personally like to use honey for stir-fry recipes. As for aromatics, fresh garlic and ginger are essentials to elevate the bold flavor.
- Bell Pepper, Green Onion, and Cashews: A red bell pepper is more traditional, but you could use green bell pepper as well. As for nuts, raw peanuts are traditionally used, but cashews are a great alternative.
Find the printable recipe with measurements below.
How To CHOOSE Dried Chilies
After endless research and taste tests, I’ve learned that this dish is not meant to be overly hot or spicy. More so, a bold flavor with a hint of spice. This is why the dried chili peppers are often cooked whole for an aromatic flavor and visual appeal rather than sliced open (as the seeds inside are the spicy element).
When shopping for Chinese dried chilies, you’ll want to look for ones associated with “Sezchuan chilies” or “facing heaven chilies” (cháo tiān jiāo). Facing heaven chilies are the most common type used in Sichuan dishes and one you’ll find when shopping. But if you can’t seem to find them, I’ve linked the bag I bought in the recipe card below!
How To Make Kung Pao Chicken
Velvet and marinate the chicken: The velveting process is one you don’t want to skip! It’s every Chinese restaurant’s secret to tender and moist chicken. To do so, add the chicken pieces to a large bowl. Stir together the soy sauce, dry sherry, and arrowroot powder in a separate small bowl, then pour on top of the chicken. Toss together and set aside while prepping your sauce.
Make the kung pao sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, water, dry sherry, rice vinegar, honey, and arrowroot powder. Set this aside to be poured onto the chicken later.
Dry roast the nuts: Heat your wok over medium-high heat and dry roast the nuts for a minute, stirring them constantly until lightly toasted. Then, remove them to a bowl. Keep your eyes on the nuts as they can burn quickly!
Cook the chicken: Lightly coat the wok with oil over medium-high heat. Then, add the chicken and stir fry for 3 to 4 minutes, until cooked through and lightly golden. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside.
Add the peppers and aromatics: Add a bit more oil to the pan (if needed) along with the bell pepper, dried chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and Sichuan powder, and stir fry for 3 to 4 minutes. If you’d like very little heat in this dish, keep the dried chili peppers whole. If you’d like mild heat, slice 2 to 3 peppers and add the sliced chili peppers along with the seeds. And if you’d like it hotter, simply slice open more of the chili peppers.
Combine everything together. Re-stir the sauce (to make sure the flour hasn’t settled on the bottom of the bowl), and pour it into the wok. Add the chicken and green onions, and stir fry for a minute or two, until the sauce starts to thicken and turn glossy. Turn off the heat, add the nuts, and give it a final stir to combine.
Both of these dishes have a hint of chili pepper flavor. But General Tso’s chicken is made with deep-fried chicken pieces. The sauce is also sweeter and a bit more umami flavored compared to the tangy and bold flavor of kung pao chicken.
As mentioned above, the dried chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns are what give this dish that bold, savory, and mildly spicy flavor. You’ll usually taste the bold kung pao sauce first. But as you continue eating, the underlying numbing and tongue-tingling flavor from the Sichuan peppercorn powder will slowly creep in.
If you don’t have a wok, you can use a pan. But I highly recommend using a wok due to its higher walls. This feature allows you to sear and cook your ingredients quickly (with plenty of space) at a higher heat and it contains the aromas in a concentrated area.
A batch of white rice is the quintessential pairing. But if you want more vegetables to complete your meal, a side of this garlic ginger bok choy is also delicious. Alternatively, you can lighten up this meal by adding spoonfuls to lettuce cups, similar to my chicken lettuce wraps.
- To Store: Let the chicken cool before storing in an airtight container. It will last in the fridge for 3 to 4 days.
- For Freezing: I always love to make a second batch to freeze for later. You can store it in a freezer-safe container for up to 3 months! When you’re ready to eat, thaw it in the fridge the night before, then give it a quick pop in the microwave.
More Easy Asian Dinner Recipes
- Teriyaki Chicken: Once you’ve made this teriyaki sauce, the rest comes together easily!
- Honey Garlic Shrimp: This honey garlic sauce is the best way to amp up a simple shrimp dinner.
- Coconut Curry Chicken: Chicken curry is one of my favorite dinners to make when I’m on a time crunch!
- Shrimp Fried Rice: Nail the perfect Chinese takeout shrimp fried rice.
I hope you enjoy this kung pao chicken recipe as much as I do. If you make it, I’d love to hear how it turned out in a comment below! Your reviews will help others in the community.
Kung Pao Chicken
- 1 ½ pounds boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 tablespoon tamari soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon dry sherry or Shaoxing wine
- 1 teaspoon arrowroot powder or cornstarch
Kung Pao Sauce
- 3 tablespoons avocado oil
- 1 red bell pepper, deseeded and chopped
- 8 dried red chilies, leave whole or slice a few open for a spicier flavor (it's the seeds that are spicy)
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn powder
- 4 green onions, sliced
- ½ cup raw cashews or peanuts
- Marinate the chicken: Add the chicken to a large bowl. Stir together the soy sauce, dry sherry, and arrowroot powder in a small bowl, then pour on top of the chicken. Toss together and set aside while prepping your sauce.
- Make the kung pao sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together the water, soy sauce, dry sherry, rice vinegar, honey, sesame oil, and arrowroot powder. Set aside.
- Dry roast the nuts: Heat a large saute pan or wok over medium-high heat and dry roast the nuts for a minute, stirring them constantly until lightly toasted. Remove them to a bowl.
- Cook the chicken: Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in the pan over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and stir fry for 3 to 4 minutes, until cooked through and lightly golden. Remove from the pan and set aside.
- Add the peppers and aromatics: Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan (if needed) along with the bell pepper, dried chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and Sichuan powder, and stir fry for 3 to 4 minutes.
- Combine everything together. Re-stir the sauce (to make sure the flour hasn't settled on the bottom of the bowl), and pour it into the wok. Add the green onion and chicken, and stir fry for a minute or two, until the sauce starts to thicken and turn glossy. Turn off the heat, add the cashews and give it a final stir to combine.
- Serve: Serve the kung pao chicken plain or over rice.
- To increase the spiciness, chop a few of the dried chilies in half before stir-frying. The seeds inside the chili amp up the dish! I usually slice 2 to 3 chilies in half and add the seeds to the stir fry.
- If you don’t have Sichuan peppercorn powder or dried red chilies, you can use these alternatives to add some spice and heat to the dish:
- Chili Paste (Sambal Oelek)
- Chili Powder
- Red Pepper Flakes
- Cayenne Pepper
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