Kung Pao Chicken, a Popular Chinese Dish
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.