Kung Pao Chicken, a Pop­u­lar Chi­nese Dish

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Wu Li, pol­ished by Png Yu Fung

Kung Pao Chicken is one of the rep­re­sen­ta­tive Sichuan dishes. The ten­der chicken and crispy peanuts to­gether cre­ate ex­cel­lence in colour, aroma and taste.

Kung Pao Chicken, or spicy chicken cubes with peanuts, is widely known for its quick-fry crispi­ness and ten­der­ness. There are three points to take note to cook this dish well: us­ing enough oil, high heat and coated chicken cubes. Many din­ers have en­joyed this dish for half of their lives but have no idea how it got its name. Kung Pao Chicken is said to be a dish from Sichuan, but Shan­dong and Guizhou also claim to be its ori­gins. Some love the fried peanuts, some pre­fer the crispy diced cu­cum­ber and oth­ers en­joy sour­ness and sweet­ness of the ly­chee. Kung Pao Chicken pre­pared with red chilli oil and spicy pep­per at­tracts both the dis­tin­guished and the or­di­nary, whether Chi­nese or for­eign­ers. It is a pop­u­lar dish well loved at home and abroad.

In the first sea­son of Friends, a sit­com from 1994 which lasted for ten sea­sons, Chan­dler's mother said in a TV in­ter­view that she had a crav­ing for Kung Pao Chicken; the same dish also ap­pears fre­quently in Ev­ery­body Loves Ray­mond, an­other sit­com shown from the 1990s; in the first sea­son of the TV se­ries, Ray­mond's el­der brother was eat­ing Kung Pao Chicken when Ray­mond came and specif­i­cally asked whether he was eat­ing Kung Pao Chicken; in the pop­u­lar Amer­i­can sit­com The Big Bang The­ory, the four sci­ence nerds are all crazy about Chi­nese food and Shel­don even ran away from his apart­ment to ex­press dis­sat­is­fac­tion with Leonard for or­der­ing Kung Pao Chicken from a dif­fer­ent Chi­nese restau­rant.

In re­al­ity, Kung Pao Chicken is a must for din­ners pre­pared for for­eign politi­cians who visit China. When the former US First Lady Michelle Obama was in­vited to Beijing, she was of­fered spicy diced chicken at a restau­rant on the first night she ar­rived; when Luo Ji­ahui, the former Amer­i­can

am­bas­sador to China, went to Chengdu, he went to a pri­vate- owned restau­rant for Mapo Tofu (stir-fried tofu in hot sauce) and Kung Pao Chicken; in 2004, Jac­ques René Chirac, the then French Pres­i­dent, or­dered five main dishes at Sof­i­tel Wanda Ho­tel dur­ing his stay in Chengdu, one of the them be­ing Kung Pao Chicken; the de­ceased China hand Igor Alek­see­vich Ro­gachev had stayed in Beijing as an am­bas­sador of Rus­sia for years and his favourite Chi­nese food was also Kung Pao Chicken; When the former Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton was asked what had im­pressed him most dur­ing his visit to China, he said hu­mor­ously, “Kung Pao Chicken”; when Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Dorothea Merkel vis­ited China, she learned to cook Kung Pao Chicken from a chef in Chengdu, which trig­gered a de­bate over the ori­gin of the dish among the ne­ti­zens of Guizhou, Shan­dong and Sichuan.

Kung Pao Chicken is not a costly del­i­cacy, but takes skill to cook it well. That's why a large num­ber of peo­ple love to eat it but very few can cook a tasty Kung Pao Chicken dish.

In spite of hav­ing the same name, the dish is pre­pared dif­fer­ently in Sichuan, Shan­dong and Guizhou. There­fore, it's nec­es­sary to trace back to its his­tory. More than a hun­dred years ago, Ding Baozhen (1820–1886), who worked suc­ces­sively as gov­er­nor of Shan­dong and gov­er­nor of Sichuan, was a big fan of fried peanuts and knew a lot about cook­ing. When he work­ing in Shan­dong, Ding asked his cook to re­place the bean sauce of the Shan­dong dish diced chicken with chilli sauce. Later Ding in­tro­duced the dish into Sichuan and cre­ated a de­li­cious dish pre­pared by stir-fry­ing chicken tubes, red chilli and peanuts to­gether. It was at first a home- cooked dish of Ding's and later be­came widely known across the coun­try, even in for­eign coun­tries.

Ding Baozhen was born in Pingyuan, Guizhou (present- day Zhi­jin, Guizhou) and he be­came a suc­cess­ful can­di­date in the high­est im­pe­rial ex­am­i­na­tion dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Xian­feng (1851– 1862) of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1911). He worked as gov­er­nor of Shan­dong and gov­er­nor of Sichuan for ten years re­spec­tively. He was an up­right and hon­est man and suc­ceeded his of­fi­cial ca­reer. He twice con­trolled the Yel­low River floods, made re­forms to the salt in­dus­try of Sichuan and improved wa­ter con­ser­vancy projects. De­spite all the ups and downs in his ca­reer, Ding re­mained hon­est and up­right all his life. Af­ter his death, the Qing court awarded Ding the ti­tle “crown-prince-tu­tor­ing of­fi­cer” in recog­ni­tion of his feats.

“Crown-prince-tu­tor­ing of­fi­cer”, be­ing one of the “court tu­tors” (pro­nounced as gong bao in Chi­nese), was ac­tu­ally an hon­orary ti­tle with­out much real power. To com­mem­o­rate Ding, peo­ple later named the dish he had cre­ated gong­bao jid­ing (宫保鸡丁, Kung Pao Chicken, a chicken dish cre­ated by Ding, a holder of the ti­tle “a court tu­tor”). The dish en­joys a long his­tory and has a far-reach­ing in­flu­ence, but has un­for­tu­nately been writ­ten in wrong Chi­nese char­ac­ters. The char­ac­ters “宫爆鸡丁” (stir-fried chicken cubes) can be seen on menus in restau­rants ev­ery­where in China, a mis­nomer for the dish's as well as a fail­ure in the in­her­i­tance of the cul­ture con­tained in it.

A fa­mous dish be­comes widely known for its good taste and is everlasting for its hu­man­is­tic and his­tor­i­cal con­no­ta­tions. A cook is sup­posed to be an in­her­i­tor of both the cook­ing skill and cul­ture it­self. That is the true spirit of cooks.

When read­ing Kong Yiji (a story writ­ten by fa­mous writer Lu Xuan), peo­ple usu­ally hold in con­tempt the episode that the main char­ac­ter Kong Yiji en­joyed talk­ing about the four dif­fer­ent ways of writ­ing the Chi­nese char­ac­ter “茴,” ev­ery time he ate hui xiang dou, beans flavoured with aniseed. It is of­ten con­sid­ered a clas­si­cal demon­stra­tion of Kong's pedantry. A close read­ing of the same episode again, how­ever, one would feel Kong's fas­ci­na­tion with Chi­nese cul­ture and re­spect for his favourite food. Kong Yiji is said to be the favourite story of the writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) him­self. As de­scribed in the story, Kong is no­to­ri­ous for his “oc­ca­sional thefts,” but he stays sin­cere as an old-fash­ioned scholar. The beans are flavoured with aniseed and his fre­quent clas­si­cal Chi­nese ex­pres­sions are his great­est de­lights.

The rea­son why Kung Pao Chicken be­comes a pop­u­lar dish is that it “goes well with rice.” The ten­der chicken cubes and crispy and de­li­cious peanuts stir-fried with chilli and pep­per to­gether cre­ate a flavour fea­tur­ing a sweet and sour taste. This is also known as the “fresh ly­chee flavour.”

The Shan­dong ver­sion of Kung Pao Chicken is mostly pre­pared with chicken thighs. Cubes of bam­boo shoot or wa­ter ch­est­nut are also added for a bet­ter taste. The cook­ing is ba­si­cally the same as that of the Sichuan ver­sion, but it is stir-fried over higher heat to make the chicken cubes more ten­der. As for the Guizhou Kung Pao Chicken, a mix­ture of chilli, gar­lic and gin­ger helps pro­duce a unique flavour. Such a salty, spicy and slightly sweet and sour flavour is one of the fea­tures that make Guizhou Kung Pao Chicken dif­fer­ent from Sichuan's.

Un­doubt­edly, Sichuan Kung Pao Chicken is the most fa­mous, fea­tur­ing the unique “fresh ly­chee flavour”—sweet, sour and spicy. Crispy fried peanuts and red chilli pieces are added in the Sichuan Kung Pao Chicken. Fa­mous Chi­nese dishes sat­isfy peo­ple's de­mand for food and cul­ture. As for Kung Pao Chicken, it also of­fers din­ers a pas­sion for spicy food.

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