Our Food Philosophy
May 6, 2024

12 Rules for the Perfect Kung Pao Chicken

Unlock the secrets of the addictive sweet spicy Sichuanese staple with our expert tips, from selecting the right chicken cut to mastering the art of stir-frying for an irresistible flavor explosion.

Madhuwanti Saha

It’s difficult to match the versatility of Kung Pao chicken, also known as Gong Bao Ji Ding. There is a perfect balance of spicy, salty, and sweet flavors that instantly awakens the senses. The heat from the chili peppers, the numbness from Sichuan peppercorns, the tanginess from vinegar, the sweetness from sugar and the crunchiness from peanuts create an irresistible flavour profile, making it a global favourite accompaniment to noodles or fried rice.   

But how much is known about Kung Pao Chicken, apart from its origin in Sichuan province?

Let’s get into it.

The literal translation of Gong Bao Ji Ding is 'palace guardian diced chicken'. Intrigued? While Chinese food scholars debate its origins, they unanimously agree on Ding Baozhen as the man behind the creation of the stir-fry dish. During the Qing Dynasty in the mid-to-late 1800s, Ding became the governor of Sichuan province, earning the title of Gōngbǎo, which means 'palace guardian'. People then started referring to him as Ding Gongbao, hence the name of the dish. 

Earlier during his childhood, Ding was saved from drowning by a passing family. Later in life, he visited them to express his gratitude, where he was served a spicy diced chicken, now known as Kung Pao chicken. Ding enjoyed the dish so much that he popularized it in Sichuan, and even named it after him. 

In another rendition of the tale, Ding's chef prepared a dish to his taste, stir-frying diced chicken, peanuts, and spicy peppers. Impressed by the flavor, Ding requested the dish be served to his guests on every occasion.

But as it happened with Chinese cuisine, the dish was brought over to America and reinvented for local flavors and tastes. 

How to make the perfect Kung Pao Chicken at home

Having unraveled the culinary tales behind this dish, it’s fair to give it a shot. The recipe is already there on our website. But before getting started let’s keep in mind 12 key elements across the cooking process, ingredient selection, and expert techniques to craft the delightful flavors of Kung Pao Chicken.

1. Choose the right cut of chicken

Both chicken thighs and breast are suitable for this recipe. But boneless chicken thighs are more tender and flavourful. To debone the thigh make a slit in the middle and insert the knife, then use its tip to lift the bone. Angle the knife towards the bone and make cuts down both sides to further expose it. Take out the bones. Use the knife to separate any remaining attached portions.

That being said, boneless and skinless chicken breasts also work and won't dry out with this quick stir-frying method. Begin by cutting 1 lb of chicken breast into thick slices, approximately one inch. Next, slice these pieces into strips, then further dice them into smaller pieces, resulting in one-inch chicken cubes.

Picture Credit: The Feathered Nester

2. Velveting chicken

It’s a traditional Chinese cooking method to keep the chicken tender and moist during stir-frying. Once you are done cutting the chicken into bite-sized cubes, mix it with cornstarch, water and sesame oil and marinade it for 20 min. Ensure the thick cubes are well coated by the starch mix. Few recipes also call for Chinese cooking wine. But the objective is to give it a basic flavor and protect it from drying out. 

Picture Credit: All Recipes

3. Prepare sauce and aromatics

Balancing the seasonings is crucial for achieving the perfect taste. After thorough research, a ratio has been discovered to maximize the flavor. For two servings, mix one teaspoon each of light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, and Shaoxing rice wine, with two teaspoons each of sugar and cornstarch. Add one and a half tablespoons of black rice vinegar and one tablespoon of water. This is ample for coating the chicken.

Be generous with aromatics, i.e. the Chinese holy trinity – garlic, ginger, and spring onions as they elevate the dish with a warm spicy, almost peppery taste. Stir fry them until fragrant.

Moreover, this dish calls for green onion as it’s more tender and juicy with every single bite containing some of it. But make sure to thinly slice the white parts and cut the green parts into one-inch pieces. Sprinkle the latter on top of the dish when served.

4. Implement mise en place

This is essential for stir-frying, as the high heat demands rapid cooking, typically finished within minutes. There's little time to fetch ingredients from the cabinet; thus, all components should be prepped and arranged near the wok. Use the marinade time to prep the aromatics and sauce. 

For instance, halve the dried chilies, mince the garlic and ginger, and thinly slice the green onions in advance. 

In short, everything should be ready before starting the stir-fry.

Picture Credit: Rouxbe

5. Fry the peanuts before the stir-fry

The peanuts give a crunchy texture to the kung pao chicken recipe. The authentic version demands unsalted fried red-skin peanuts, available in Asian supermarkets. For that extra crispiness, fry them with a small amount of oil and let them cool. Stir constantly for a couple of minutes or they will burn. Turn off the heat and continue stirring for an additional minute, allowing the residual heat in the wok to finish the cooking process. 

Chefs at Chinese restaurants usually do this before they stir fry to enhance the crispiness. Fry a larger batch to save and use as toppings or snacks. You can always toast the nuts in a pan until lightly brown for a healthier option. Or you can skip the above and go for store-bought crispy peanuts.

6. Use a wok on high heat

For optimal texture and a hint of smokiness in your dish, cook in a wok over high heat. That extra smokiness is known as wok-hai. Hence the cooking pan should be set on high heat until a bead of water sizzles and evaporates on contact.

Picture Credit: All Recipes

More importantly, maintaining continuous movement in the wok over high heat prevents the meat from becoming mushy or drying out. Additionally, it preserves the crispness of the aromatics and their fragrant aromas.

7. Add chili peppers strategically

Once the wok is hot, fry the dried chili peppers for half a minute to release their flavour. They should still look red as they will darken later, giving a hint of smokiness. Pull them up the side of the wok to make room to add shallots/spring onion.

8. Control the spiciness level

Kung Pao’s worldwide popularity is attributed to its mild spice levels. Hence feel free to choose any variety of dried chilies that are easily accessible and suit your heat tolerance. The crucial aspect is to opt for fresh-looking ones: vibrant and shiny in color. Chillies of Indian origin work too. 

 9. Achieve the perfect red color

The vibrant red color and fiery kick from dried chili pepper are essential elements here. Apart from chili peppers, the dark soy sauce adds its deep reddish-brown color to the dish. For those still on a quest for that perfect hue, throw in some annatto seeds to jazz up the dish with a pop of natural red colour without the spice.

Picture Credit: Chili Pepper Madness

10. Optimize wok setup for your stove type

As established, you need a wok on high heat to lend the dish the best texture and smokiness. The optimal setup is a gas stove paired with a cast iron or carbon steel wok. Alternatively, if using an electric stove, get a large skillet with a broad contact surface. In this scenario, the chicken will be pan-fried rather than stir-fried, resulting in a slightly different but equally delicious flavor profile. Using a wok on an electric stove will not generate sufficient heat, potentially leading to lukewarm cooking and a mushy dish.

11. Avoid overcrowding the wok

Always add chicken pieces in small multiple batches as it ensures the meat stays succulent despite being quickly stir-fried. For instance, a 14-inch cast iron wok can handle only one pound of chicken. Overcrowding will cause the chicken to sweat and lose its juices. 

12. Add chili oil for extra flavor

If your dried chilies are not sufficiently spicy, add a dash of chili oil  (without seeds or flakes) for an extra kick. This gives you control over spiciness and adds depth to the flavor. You can add it during cooking or at the end.

However, it's optional and not traditionally included in the original Chinese recipe. So no need to fret if it's not in your pantry.

Evidently mastering an authentic Kung Pao Chicken recipe requires attention to detail and careful execution. From the choice of chicken cut to the meticulous preparation of aromatics and sauce, each step contributes to the dish's irresistible taste. The high heat of the wok, strategic addition of chili peppers, and optimising the wok set ensure a perfect execution.

It might seem like a lot of work. 

Can a robot cook Kung Pao Chicken?

Nymble, the kitchen robot, is designed to streamline your home cooking experience. Unlike most smart cooking appliances flooding the markets today, it doesn't confuse you with multiple modes and choices. Instead, Nymble focuses on what matters most: automating the entire cooking process for you.

To cook Kung Pao Chicken with Nymble, all you have to do is select the recipe from the screen attached to the device or use the companion app. Then, prep and load the ingredients into the respective containers, fill the water and oil containers, place the spice pods in the spice tray, and press 'cook' to let Nymble take over.

The cooking pan sits atop the induction cooktop, with an integrated stirrer attached to it, facilitating the stirring, folding, and blending of all ingredients. However, it's Nymble's computer vision technology that truly propels the cooking process forward, guaranteeing that the recipe comes together perfectly.

Watch this video to see how exactly Nymble makes Kung Pao Chicken:

Get Nymble in 2024

We are delighted to share that Nymble received an overwhelming number of pre-orders in 2023, resulting in the complete sell-out of our initial batch of kitchen robots. However, we are currently ramping up production for the next batch, and by signing up today, you will secure your place on the waitlist for the upcoming release, expected to kick off later-2024.