Behind the Recipes

Sensational Kung Pao Chicken

Spicy chiles and tingly Sichuan peppercorns team up with lightly sauced chicken and peanuts in gōngbǎo jīdīng, a stir-fry that's literally sensational.

Published Oct. 3, 2018.

My Goals and Discoveries

Juicy chicken

Diced chicken thighs remain juicy without pretreatment; covering the skillet helps the chicken cook quickly and evenly.

Traditional ma la flavor profile

Sichuan peppercorns contribute a tingly, numbing sensation (má) while dried chiles provide spice (là).

Varied textures

Toasting the peanuts early, setting them aside to cool, and then adding them back at the end of cooking ensures that they retain crunch. Diced celery provides cool crispness and barely cooked scallions contribute a squeaky texture.

Uniform size and shape

We cut the chicken, celery, and scallions into small pieces to match the size of the peanuts, which gives our Gōngbǎo Jīdīng the harmonious appearance that is a hallmark of the dish.


Gōngbǎo Jīdīng (Sichuan Kung Pao Chicken)

Spicy chiles and tingly Sichuan peppercorns team up with lightly sauced chicken and peanuts in a stir-fry that's literally sensational.
Get the Recipe

In the ’90s, kung pao chicken, as it's often referred to in the West, was my go-to Chinese restaurant order. The diced meat and vegetables, peanuts, and vaguely sweet and sour sauce were cozily familiar, while the fiery dried chiles scattered throughout supplied an appealing undercurrent of danger. But eventually I moved on to other favorites and forgot about this Sichuan classic, whose name in pinyin is gōngbǎo jīdīng (gōngbǎo is the honorable title of the Qing Dynasty official for whom the dish is believed to be named and jīdīng means diced chicken).

Then a few months ago, I ordered gōngbǎo in a restaurant and was delighted by the addition of Sichuan peppercorns, which not only imbued the dish with a woodsy fragrance and citrusy tang but also created a tingling sensation on my lips and tongue, a perfect complement to the heat of the chiles. In fact, the interplay of peppercorns and chiles is so foundational to Sichuan cuisine that it has a name: málà, which means “numbing heat.” Sichuan peppercorns were banned in the United States from 1968 to 2005 because they were mistakenly believed to carry a virus that could endanger the American citrus crop, so these tiny dried fruits of the prickly ash tree had been tragically absent from my ’90s gōngbǎo. But now, back where they belonged, they snapped the flavors of the dish into focus.

A Sensational Combo

The combination of numbing, tingly Sichuan peppercorns (má) and fiery chiles (là)­—or málà (“numbing heat”)—is a calling card of Sichuan cuisine. You’ll find these trademark sensations in our Gōngbǎo Jīdīng recipe as well as in our Mapo Tofu (Sichuan Braised Tofu with Beef) (September/October 2017) and Crispy Salt and Pepper Shrimp (November/December 2014) recipes.


Sichuan peppercorns contain the chemical hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, which sends signals to our brains that we interpret as vibrations—even though the peppercorns don’t actually vibrate our skin. But they do cause numbness and tingling.


Arbol chiles are a good substitute for the traditional choice: cháotiānjiāo, or “facing heaven chiles." Both varieties measure between 30,000 and 50,000 units on the Scoville heat scale.

My interest in the dish was reawakened, and I was eager to devise my own version of gōngbǎo chicken. I knew that chiles and buzzy peppercorns weren’t enough to ensure success, though. The chicken would have to be juicy and the peanuts crunchy, with a bit of crisp, cooling vegetable matter in there for contrast. And I wanted a potent glaze that lightly coated—not heavily sauced—each piece but still delivered flavor to every bite.

A Mild Start

Most recipes called for boneless, skinless chicken, either breasts or thighs. I went with thighs because they’re not only more resistant to overcooking but also more flavorful, so they’d make a better match for the strong flavors of gōngbǎo. I tossed the diced thighs in a marinade that, from my research, appeared to be pretty universal: savory soy sauce; sweet rice wine; floral, earthy white pepper; and a bit of cornstarch that would help the marinade cling to the meat and lend some body to the glaze when cooked.

Vegetables aren’t a major player in gōngbǎo chicken, but a small amount adds welcome color and crunch. Celery and scallions are both common, and I diced them to match the size of the smallest element of the dish: the peanuts. Cutting everything to the same size is a hallmark of gōngbǎo chicken. It provides visual harmony and allows the diner to experience multiple flavors and textures in every bite. I also grated some ginger, minced some garlic, and whisked up a quick glaze composed of a bit more soy; complex, fruity black vinegar; dark brown sugar; and some toasted sesame oil to bolster the nutty flavor of the roasted peanuts. I kept the volume small so I’d end up with just enough to coat all the components.

Hold the Sauce

Gōngbǎo should not be swimming in liquid. The flavors of this dish are very potent, and a large volume of sauce would make it overwhelmingly spicy and salty. (Alternatively, reducing the potency of the sauce with ingredients such as broth and thickeners would dilute the overall flavor of the dish.)

Cutting the chicken, celery, and scallions into the same size as the peanuts means that every flavor and texture can be enjoyed in a single mouthful.

To start, I heated a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a nonstick skillet and added a generous handful of dried arbol chiles (a fine substitute for the traditional bright red cháotiānjiāo, or “facing heaven chiles” ) and some ground Sichuan peppercorns. When they were fragrant and just starting to darken, I added the peanuts and then the garlic and ginger. The last two clumped up in the hot skillet, but I figured they’d disperse once I added the chicken.

Because all the little pieces of chicken were a pain to turn constantly, I introduced a small innovation: I covered the skillet. This way, the pieces cooked from the top as well as the bottom. When the chicken was mostly cooked, I added the celery. After pouring in the sauce and reducing it to a glaze consistency, I stirred in the scallions, killed the heat, and took a taste.

Let’s start with the positives: The chicken thighs were tender and juicy throughout, the celery and scallions were crisp, and the dark glaze coated everything nicely. On the negative side, the peanuts were soggy and soft. And those sticky clumps of garlic and ginger hadn’t spread out as I had hoped and had instead collected all the Sichuan peppercorn dust, forming sneaky sensory bombs. As for the heat level, despite my free hand with the chiles, it was almost nonexistent.

Prepping Peppercorns and Chiles


Sichuan peppercorns need to be ground for even flavor distribution.


After you slice the arbol chiles to expose their capsaicin-rich interior ribs, shake out their seeds for just the right amount of heat.

Heating Things Up

I had a hunch about why my arbol chiles, which I knew to be impressively spicy, weren’t imparting much fire to my gōngbǎo. To test it, I touched an intact chile to my tongue. Nothing. Then I opened up a chile and tasted the interior. Ouch. There was plenty of heat on the inside since most capsaicin resides in the ribs of chiles, but there wasn’t enough time or moisture in my recipe to coax that flavor through the tough skin.

So for my next batch, I halved the chiles lengthwise to expose as much of their spicy interiors as possible. (But to ensure that I didn’t overwhelm my tasters with heat, I jostled the chiles until all the seeds fell out.) And to aid the distribution of the grated ginger and minced garlic, I put them in a small bowl and stirred in 1 tablespoon of oil.

I also tweaked the order of operations a bit. Because I wanted the peanuts to be as toasty and crunchy as possible, I cooked them first in a teaspoon of oil and then transferred them to a plate, where they would continue to crisp as they cooled. Then I stir-fried the halved chiles and the ground peppercorns and added the ginger and garlic, which dispersed with minimal persuasion, thanks to their coating of oil. Then the chicken went in. I covered the skillet, and when the chicken was mostly cooked, I added the celery. The sauce went in, and only when it was fully reduced did I add the peanuts, along with the scallions, so both would maintain their texture.

With its lightly glazed components and hallmark sensations of spice, tingle, crunch, crispness, and juiciness in every bite, this version of gōngbǎo chicken was as sensational as it gets.

Gōngbǎo Jīdīng (Sichuan Kung Pao Chicken)

Spicy chiles and tingly Sichuan peppercorns team up with lightly sauced chicken and peanuts in a stir-fry that's literally sensational.
Get the Recipe

Gōngbǎo Jīdīng (Sichuan Kung Pao Chicken) for Two

Spicy chiles and tingly Sichuan peppercorns team up with lightly sauced chicken and peanuts in a stir-fry that's literally sensational.
Get the Recipe


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