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<strong>Kung Pao Chicken</strong>

Kung Pao Chicken, also known as Gong Bao or Kung Po, originated in the Sichuan or Szechuan province of China. Known for its hot spicy dishes, Sichuan cooking is complex, sophisticated, and flavorful. The main ingredients in a traditional Kung Pao Chicken recipe consist of chicken, dried chili peppers, scallions, peanuts, and a spicy sauce.

Kung Pao Chicken is one of the most popular Chinese dishes in the United States. I wanted to learn to make this dish as authentically as possible, so I researched its unique ingredients, which are, of course, in the sauce. Common ingredients in the sauce include Chinese black rice vinegar, Shaoxing rice wine, Sichuan peppercorns, and both dark and light soy sauce.

I must admit I have never heard of these ingredients. My research showed Chinese black rice vinegar is made from glutinous or black sticky rice and malt vinegar. Shaoxing rice wine is produced in the city of Shaoxing, located in the Zhejiang province of China, and is made by fermenting glutinous rice, water, and wheat-based yeast. Sichuan peppercorns are the berries of the prickly ash tree. Sometimes called flower pepper, Sichuan peppers resemble a black peppercorn but contain a tiny seed. And, who knew there was both a dark and light soy sauce. I’ve always just used Kikkoman’s®. I learned there is a difference. Light soy sauce is 7.2 percent sodium. It adds a salty flavor to dishes but not a soy flavor; and when added to noodle dishes, it will not stain the noodles a mahogany color. Dark soy sauce is 9.3 percent sodium. It gives dishes a more intense soy flavor; and when added to noodle dishes, turns the noodles that lovely mahogany color. So, that is how your favorite Chinese restaurant achieves those deeply colored noodles. All-purpose soy sauce, which is what I have always used, is 7 percent sodium. It is similar to light soy sauce but has more soy flavor. You can interchange light soy sauce and all-purpose soy sauce in any recipe, but only use dark soy sauce when it is specifically called for as its flavor is very strong.

I began preparing my shopping list to make Kung Pao Chicken. “Oh, goodness!” I thought. “Chinese black rice vinegar. Shaoxing rice wine. Sichuan peppercorns. Light soy sauce. Dark soy sauce. That’s quite a shopping list. Not going happen, especially with the rising cost of our grocery bill.”

I researched substitutions and have experimented many times, which delighted my husband. I substituted balsamic vinegar for the Chinese black rice vinegar; sherry (which I keep on hand for recipes that call for sherry) for the Shaoxing wine; and just used plain old Kikkoman’s ® low-sodium soy sauce. I did add some hoisin sauce, which I keep on hand. It is a sweet and spicy reddish-brown sauce that is often used in Chinese cooking. To give the dish a bit more zing, I used hot chili oil. To add my own personal touch as well as increase our veggie intake, I included some zucchini. I think I finally have the recipe down to perfection.

I hope you enjoy! My husband gave it a 10—his highest rating.

Kung Pao Chicken Serves 4

For the chicken:

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts (You can use boneless, skinless chicken thighs.) 1 tablespoon dry sherry 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce 2 teaspoons baking soda 1 teaspoon cornstarch Using a sharp knife, cut chicken into 1-inch cubes and place in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, combine sherry, soy sauce, baking soda, and cornstarch. Pour the sherry mixture over chicken cubes and toss to coat evenly. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate until ready to stir-fry.

For the sauce: ½ cup chicken broth ¼ cup + 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar 2 tablespoons dry sherry 2 teaspoons hoisin sauce 1 tablespoon minced garlic 3 teaspoons fresh, minced ginger (I use the jarred ginger found in the produce department.) 2 tablespoons brown sugar 1 teaspoon cornstarch

In a medium bowl, place chicken broth, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, sherry, hoisin sauce, garlic, ginger, brown sugar, and cornstarch and whisk until sugar dissolves. Set aside.

For the Stir-Fry:

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided 2 tablespoons hot chili oil, divided 1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces 1 small zucchini, sliced into ½-inch thick half-moons 8 to 10 dried chiles, or to taste 4 medium green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces ½ cup roasted, unsalted or slightly salted peanuts In a large skillet or work, place 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and 1 tablespoon hot chili oil and place over high heat. When oil sizzles, add chicken. Stir-fry chicken for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often, until edges are browned. Remove chicken from the skillet and set aside.

To the same skillet or wok, add remaining 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and 1 tablespoon hot chili oil and place over high heat. When oil sizzles, add bell pepper, zucchini, dried chiles and stir-fry for 1 minute.

Stir the sauce and pour it into the skillet and bring the sauce to a boil, stirring constantly. Once the sauce begins to thicken slightly, add chicken back into the skillet and mix thoroughly. Cook until sauce thickens, about 2 more minutes.

Add green onions and peanuts and mix thoroughly. Cook an additional 2 minutes.

Serve immediately with steamed rice.

Shopping for bell peppers: Look for fresh, firm peppers that are bright and thick fleshed with a firm green calyx and stem. Bell peppers should feel heavy for their size. Immature green bell peppers are soft, pliable, thin-fleshed, and pale green in color. Do not buy bell peppers with wrinkled skin or any soft or brown spots.

Shopping for zucchini: Select small to medium squash with shiny, taut skin. If the skin is lightly scratched or bruised, it will not compromise the quality of the squash. Do not buy overly large squash or ones with pitted skin or a spongy texture.

Carol Ann

Carol Ann Kates is the award-winning author of cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market and Insider Grocery Shopping Secrets. She’s an expert in how to shop, select, and store produce for maximizing home cooking outcomes and minimizing time and money spent. As a former supermarket and deli operator, Carol Ann shares grocery-insider wisdom—the same expertise you used to receive when patronizing a mom-and-pop establishment. Contact her at and explore her website,

Copyright 2022 All Rights Reserved Carol Ann Kates

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