I am a big fan of Sichuanese cuisine, and I particularly crave the unique flavor combination known as “ma-la”. Roughly translated as “numbing and hot”, ma-la dishes get their heat from copious amounts of incendiary chilies. The numbing part comes from a crazy little dried berry often called the Sichuan peppercorn.
Perhaps the Ma La dish most familiar to us here in the States is Kung Pao Chicken. Pronounced “Gong Bao, and named after a famous Sihuanese governor, the authentic version is quite simple, and never contains such items as bell peppers, carrots or celery as is common here in Chinese-American restaurants. Make sure that you work with plenty of ventilation. As the chilies start to darken, the smoke can get into your lungs and cause a major coughing fit. Keep the fan on, and the windows open, and you will have a dish that the governor would be proud to call his own!
KUNG PAO CHICKEN
Adapted from “Land of Plenty” by Fuchsia Dunlop
For the marinade:
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine or medium-dry sherry
- 2 1/4 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon water
- 2 medium boneless, skinless chicken breasts
For the sauce:
- 3 teaspoons sugar
- 1 1/8 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
- 3 teaspoons Chinkiang or black Chinese vinegar, or balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon chicken stock or water
For the Kung Pao:
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- Enough minced ginger to equal 1 tablespoon
- 5 scallions, white parts only
- 2 tablespoons Chinese peanut oil
- 10-15 medium dried red chilies,
- 1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
- 2/3 cup roasted unsalted peanuts
Mix the marinade ingredients in a small bowl and. Cut the chicken as evenly as possible into 1/2-inch strips, then cut these into small cubes and add to marinade.
Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl, and set aside.
Chop the scallions into chunks roughly the size of the chicken cubes.
Heat the wok. When very hot, add 2 tablespoons of oil, swirling to coat the bottom of the wok. When the oil is hot but not yet smoking, add the chilies and Sichuan peppercorns 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). The chilies should become deep red to brown, but do not allow them to blacken. Add the chicken and toss 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).
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.
written by Jim Becker, Chinatown guide