This quick chicken stir fry with peanuts, made fiery with chilies or mild without them, is a healthy flavorful dinner from China’s Szechuan province.
If you’re in the Northeast, I hope you’re safe and warm and with power and all dug out of the snow by now. As I write this Tuesday morning, we’re expecting 1 – 2 feet. Yes, they even stopped writing our forecast in inches. I’m obviously not driving to the gym this morning, but I know I’ll be getting a workout later on when we shovel.
Today’s recipe comes with a travel story. If you just want to get to the recipe, feel free to scroll on down (as always). I’m not offended.
I took a tour of China in May, 2015. It was two weeks, and I went to Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, Yangshuo, and Hong Kong. It was a fast-paced whirlwind tour. They packed so much sightseeing into each day, there was no time to rest. I like traveling like that. I want to see as much as possible when I’m in a new place, and I always say you can sleep when you get home.
The exception was Yangshuo. We had two nights, almost three full days there, with hardly anything on our itinerary. Yangshuo, in the semi-autonomous Guangxi region, was one of the first parts of China open to Western tourism and became very popular with backpackers for climbing. With its tropical climate, it’s also sort of a resort destination. It was very hot and humid when we were there, and I admit I spent a good amount of time relaxing in our air conditioned hotel room. It was a good opportunity to rest after the jam-packed days we’d been having earlier in the tour.
By the way, my roommate and I did drag ourselves from the air conditioning to do an hour-long hike one afternoon. I can’t show you the picture of me there because my shirt and hair were soaked with sweat, but here is the view.
The whole town is surrounded by mountains like that and just gorgeous.
Anyway, I did want to partake in some other activity while in Yangshuo, and I signed up for a cooking class at Cloud 9 Restaurant Cooking School.
It had been over a week since I cooked anything, and I thought it would be fun and a way to learn more about Chinese cuisine. Our instructor, Jenny, met us at our hotel and brought us over to the market for a tour. She picked up a few ingredients for what we’d be making, but most of it was already at the restaurant being prepped for us. At the market, we saw vegetables, live fish, snails, eels, live chickens, rabbits, and ducks, and even dog meat in the meat section. (No, they did not teach us how to butcher our own chicken for the kung pao chicken.)
From the market, we walked to the restaurant. They had one room with two long tables facing each other and a station for each person with a wok on a one-burner stove, a cutting board, and our tools and ingredients.
Here is yours truly at the class. I was clearly very into the apron and chef’s hat.
Jenny showed us how to make a cucumber salad, but that was one thing we didn’t actually make ourselves. We just watched since it only took a few minutes, and we ate it at lunch. Then she walked us through all our ingredient prep. We didn’t cook everything until the very end so the room didn’t get hot and nothing was cooked until right before we ate lunch.
First we made pork dumplings. We made the filling but used pre-made wrappers. Jenny taught us how to fold them. They had a number on each steamer basket. They brought them into the kitchen and steamed them for us and then brought them out when we were eating lunch. Then we made a vegetable stir fry with what I know as Japanese eggplant but they just call eggplant, green beans, and garlic. (Unfortunately the piece of paper I have with the eggplant recipe is all faded out and unreadable.)
For our main course, we made Kung Pao (aka Gong Bao) Chicken. I had never eaten that dish before because I don’t like spicy food. Jenny assured us we could pick the chilies out and it wouldn’t be too spicy. I also didn’t know it was an authentic Chinese dish. I had thought it was more American like General Tso’s Chicken. But this dish is from the Szechuan region of China.
When we were done cooking, we carried our plates of chicken and eggplant over to the restaurant part to sit down in the air conditioning and eat, and we left all the dirty dishes at our workstations behind us, never to see them again. Imagine that!
They brought out our steamed dumplings from the kitchen, the cucumber salad, and some steamed rice. This isn’t going to sound very modest, but this lunch really stood out in my mind. The chicken, eggplant, and cucumber salad were all delicious. (The dumplings looked great, but I thought the filling wasn’t that tasty. That was the only recipe I wouldn’t make again.)
This is the recipe from Cloud 9 Cooking School. They wrote the recipe in metric measurements and for one serving. I converted to English measurements and increased the recipe to serve four. There were a few things that seemed off on written recipe from what we actually did. I made a couple small changes that I think make the recipe work better. Then I wrote the instructions out in my own words.
Here are the main ingredients. I used boneless skinless chicken breast, but you can also use boneless skinless thighs. There’s some minced garlic and chopped ginger, dried chilies, oyster sauce, chopped red bell pepper, carrots, cucumber, scallions, and peanuts. (When I cook this dish just for us, I leave out the chili peppers. While Kung Pao Chicken is known as a spicy dish, it’s still a really good stir fry without them.)
First I mixed the chicken with salt, oil, rice wine, cornstarch, and egg white. I let it sit for 10 minutes. This is a Chinese cooking technique called velveting. You can velvet any kind of meat. With velveting, you marinate the meat with cornstarch, rice wine, and egg white. Then you usually deep-fry or boil in water for just a couple minutes. Then you’re ready to stir fry. This cooking technique locks in moisture and keeps the meat super tender. You won’t believe how juicy the white meat chicken is in this dish.
In this recipe, rather than deep frying for a few minutes, I cooked the chicken quickly in a little bit of oil.
Next I cooked the garlic, ginger, and chilies until fragrant.
Then I cooked the vegetables, added the seasoning, and added the chicken back to the wok. I added scallions, peanuts, and a little bit of sesame oil at the end.
Serve this chicken with steamed white rice and garnish with more peanuts or chopped scallions.
If you’re interested in more international recipes or you like reading about travel, check out my Polish Style Pork Tenderloin with Potato Dumplings, Lomo Saltado (Beef and French Fry Stir Fry), Chicken Paprikash with Dumplings, Andes Mountain Quinoa Beef Soup, Salmon with Passionfruit Sauce, and Cod with Roasted Green Onions and Pistachio.
Kung Pao Chicken
- 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast, diced
- 1/4 cup, plus 3 tablespoons peanut oil, divided
- 4 teaspoons mirin
- 4 teaspoons corn starch
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
- 1 large egg white
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 inch piece ginger, chopped
- 1/4 ounce dried red chilies, cut into 1 inch pieces
- 2 bell peppers, diced
- 3 ounces cucumber, peeled, seeds removed, and diced (about 1 Persian cucumber)
- 3 ounces carrot, peeled and diced (about 2 small carrots)
- 2 1/2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
- 2 1/2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 1 teaspoon chicken bouillon (dried powder), or 1 bouillon cube, dissolved in 1/4 cup hot water
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 8 scallions, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
- 3 ounces peanuts (about 3/4 cup)
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
- Put the chicken in a large bowl with 2 tablespoons oil, mirin, corn starch, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and egg white. Mix thoroughly and leave to marinate for 10 minutes.
- Heat ¼ cup oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken and cook, stirring often, until chicken is almost cooked through, about 5 minutes. Remove chicken to a plate with a slotted spoon and pour out any excess coating from the wok.
- Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil and turn heat down to low. Add garlic, ginger, and chilies, and cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add bell pepper, cucumber, and carrot. Turn heat back to medium-high. Cook, stirring often, for 3 minutes.
- To the vegetables, add soy sauce, oyster sauce, remaining 1 teaspoon kosher salt, chicken bouillon in water, sugar, and ground white pepper. Stir well. Return the chicken to the wok and continue cooking, stirring often, until vegetables are crisp tender and chicken is cooked through, about 3 minutes.
- Add scallions, peanuts, and sesame oil. Mix well and cook 1 more minute. Serve with additional scallions or peanuts for garnish.
Recipe adapted from Cloud 9 Cooking School in Yangshuo, China.