Kung pao chicken is a hot, sweet, and sharp chicken dish that helped grow Chinese food’s popularity worldwide. Everything about it is a delightful experience! From the thick, sparing sauce to the meat that is both tender on the inside and crispy on the outside, no wonder it is an Asian foodie's favourite!
We’ve scoured the internet and all of our favourite recipe books to find the best kung pao chicken recipe - we think we’ve got it. This recipe is bright, earthy, and just a little bit hot. It's not too spicy, but wonderfully warm at the same time!
So keep reading to hear our favourite authentic kung pao chicken recipe.
What is Kung Pao Chicken?
Kung pao chicken is a combination of wonderfully crispy and succulent chunks of meat sitting within plenty of sauce. Cooks typically make kung pao chicken sauce by mixing Chinese cooking wine, black vinegar, soy sauce, hoisin sauce and cornflour. The combination creates a sharp and silky flavour palette that people adore.
You will find that, throughout Asia, this dish is served as part of a larger array of side dishes that make up a large family meal in Asia. While you usually do not cook this at home, many people love it as a Chinese takeaway dish, making it immensely popular worldwide. Another Chinese takeaway dish that we love making at home is chicken with salt and pepper - check out our recipe!
Kung pao chicken vs szechuan chicken
Kung pao chicken is mildly spicy, sweet and nutty. Meanwhile, Szechuan chicken is spicier and is not sweet or nutty. These two dishes are pretty similar. Therefore, many people confuse between the two dishes. Let's go through the differences more thoroughly below.
Kung pao chicken is a stir-fried dish with a small amount of sauce distributed throughout the meal. Typically, the dish tastes quite spicy and is sweet and a little nutty. Peanuts added to the meal are responsible for the nuttiness of the dish.
Szechuan chicken is made in much the same way. It is stir-fried with a bit of sauce throughout it. The difference is that the spiciness of the food is the flavour at the forefront of the dish, and it isn’t very sweet or nutty. Instead, it has a bold, intense flavour thanks to the use of soy sauce and similar ingredients.
Cuts of meat
For kung pao chicken, you typically use breasts. The chicken breasts are the most versatile cut of meat, and it’s an excellent option for cooking stir-fries. This is because breast meat has very little inherent fat, meaning that it can be made crispy on the outside very quickly.
Another option could be tenderloins. These cuts of the meat are slightly more tender than the whole piece of breast meat. Therefore, they’re outstanding when crispy on the outside. In fact, many cooks crumb and fry it under high heat to accentuate the crispy exterior relative to the tender inside.
Another option is to make kung pao chicken thighs. You can find these cuts of meat sold as fillets with the skin and bone removed. However, some people prefer to use thigh cutlets, which still the bones and skin attached to it, as they usually turn out more flavourful when fried.
Thigh meat is typically a little browner than breast meat and has more fat content. Hence, they are typically more flavourful. However, if you season any other cut enough, there isn’t too much of a difference.
One serving of the recipe that we’ll be sharing below is 382 calories. That’s actually a lot better than what you might expect in a takeaway version of the meal. We find that takeout restaurants typically cook the recipe with a lot of sugar and additives.
Kung Pao Chicken Ingredients
There are quite a lot of kung pao chicken ingredients, so we’re just going to focus on the important ones here - these are the ones that are integral to the flavour of the dish or might need a little bit more care when they’re being prepared.
Skinless chicken breast
We’d recommend cutting the chicken into this relatively small size (1-inch cubes) so that you can get a good sear on it. Ensuring that the meat sears well and has a crisp outside is essential for the final dish.
Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
Shaoxing wine has a rich, robust flavour. If you’ve never had it before, it’s quite similar to red wine vinegar, though more well-rounded. We’d definitely recommend seeking out Shaoxing wine, even if you have to go to a specialist supermarket. Otherwise, you can also use dry sherry as a substitute.
Chinese black vinegar
The Chinese black vinegar has quite a distinct sweet taste. It’s really important for the kung pao sauce, which has quite sweet notes overall. Therefore, we’d recommend finding some of this vinegar, or you can substitute it for balsamic vinegar.
Light and Dark soy sauce
The two types of soy sauces have pretty different flavours. Light is brighter and hence, you can it in abundance. On the other hand, dark is a lot more intense and therefore, you should use it sparingly. This blend of the two different types of soy sauce is a beautiful combination for this kung pao chicken. However, you should always adjust to your preference.
We recommend adding 8-10 pieces of dried chillies to your dish. You might think that seems like a lot of chillies! However, you're supposed to make it spicy and sweet at the same time. The chillies (combined with the sugar in the recipe) make for a powerful combination of utterly wonderful flavours!
If you’re not a fan of spice, you can decrease the number of chillies, though the final choice is up to you - we’d recommend leaving them in.
Roasted, unsalted peanuts
The peanuts aren’t a massive part of this dish in size, but they pack a flavour punch. The flavour is gentle and creamy, contributing to the dish's overall flavour.
If you’re allergic to peanuts, we’d recommend finding another nut of about the same size for this recipe. Pine nuts could be a great choice to replace peanuts. They will cook similarly and provide a roughly similar flavour.
Kung Pao Sauce
Kung pao sauce is a heavily flavoured sauce that can be used for a number of things, not just kung pao chicken. The flavours come from a combination of spices and soy sauce, vinegar, and sugar.
The sauce works really well here, and you could use it on many things. For example, it would be spectacular drizzled over roasted veggies or tossed into a Chinese-inspired salad!
Preheat your pan and frying oil
Our first tip for ensuring that this recipe turns out well for you is to make sure that you use a really hot pan. In several other recipes, it isn’t too important to ensure that your pan is preheated, but when stir-frying, it’s vital! It will ensure that every element of the dish has a crisp outside while also having a soft inside: that’s what makes a great stir-fry.
In the same vein - allow your oil to preheat before frying, too. Having exceptionally hot oil allows for that same crispiness. Moreover, it also enables different flavours to mix more rapidly. This is crucial for making excellent kung pao chicken.
Keep stirring your dish while cooking
Our second tip is to ensure that you keep your stir-fry moving. This is for one reason, mainly: to prevent burning.
As the pan is very hot when stir-frying, ingredients on the pan's base are more likely to burn and get stuck to the inside of the pan. It isn’t ideal, of course, as it will add a bitter, charcoal flavour to your food.
Instead, making sure to keep the things in the pan moving around is a great way to be utterly sure that none of your ingredients will be too close to the heat and thereby burn. It is a great tip for any stir-fry style recipe, including our Chinese lemon chicken recipe.
Don't put a lid over the pan
This final tip is a slightly odd one, but once we’ve explained it, we hope that you’ll understand! Don’t put a lid on your pan!
The sauce in an authentic kung pao chicken recipe is supposed to be mixed into the rest of the ingredients quite sparingly. If you keep the lid on, then a constant supply of condensation will ensure that the volume of the sauce remains roughly equal. However, if you remove the lid, evaporation will allow your sauce to thicken and soak into other elements of the meal very nicely.
How to serve
There’s no perfect way to serve your meal, though there are some ways that we would recommend.
First and foremost, we would suggest serving this kung pao chicken over rice. By doing so, you will allow any excess sauce to be soaked up by the rice. Hence, leading to a very tasty carb alongside your protein dish!
While you could serve this recipe with noodles, it’s quite a wet dish. Therefore, serving it with noodles could be too, for want of a better term, sloppy.
Aside from serving over rice, the only thing to think about is a garnish. There are a few options, but we’d recommend sprinkling some scallions and a few peanuts over the top of the dish. Both scallions and peanuts bring fresh flavours to the dish!
Using an air fryer
Using an air fryer to make the perfect crispy kung pao chicken is a wonderful idea. Air fryers are specifically designed to make food crispy, and the best kung pao has perfectly crispy chicken!
We would suggest marinating the meat as we do in the recipe later on and then air frying it at 180˚C for five minutes. Once cooked, you’ll be able to add the meat quite late in the recipe. Add it about the same time as you add the peanuts and scallions to the pan on the stove.
Using an oven
When using an oven, things can be straightforward indeed. We recommend cooking your meat separately to ensure that you get a crispy outer surface. Then, add it to a large bowl containing the sauce and other ingredients. Mix everything, and then add it to a baking dish to make something akin to a kung pao chicken casserole.
Add the casserole to a 180˚C oven and cook for around forty-five minutes in the centre of the oven. The top of the mixture might get too dry. If that happens, tent some foil on top! It will prevent that from happening any further. You might not need to do this. This is because it will depend on your oven.
Kung Pao Chicken | Chinese Family Recipe
- 800 g boneless/skinless chicken breast cut into one-inch cubes
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 2 tsps baking soda
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch/cornflour
- 4 tbsps cooking oil
- 1 ½ tbsps garlic
- 1 tablespoon ginger
- 8-10 dried chillies cut into half-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns lightly toasted and ground
- 4 scallion stems cut into 1-inch pieces
- ½ cup roasted, unsalted peanuts
- 2 tbsps sesame oil (optional)
- Combine all the chicken ingredients in a shallow bowl, then cover and set aside to marinate for at least ten minutes.
- Whisk together the sauce ingredients, making sure that the sugar dissolved. Set the mixture aside.
- Heat a large pan over high heat, add 2 tablespoon cooking oil and allow it to get hot. Add the marinated chicken and stir for 3-4 minutes while occasionally stirring until edges are browned. Remove the chicken from the heat, and set it aside to add later to the pan.
- Add remaining cooking oil to the pan. Then, stir in the garlic, ginger, chilli peppers, and Sichuan peppercorns. Stir fry the mixture for one minute.
- Give the prepared sauce a mix, and then pour it into the pan, bringing everything to a boil. Don’t stop stirring.
- Once the sauce begins to thicken, add the chicken back to the pan, and mix everything thoroughly until the sauce is coating everything and being nicely thickened.
- Stir in the green onions, peanuts, and sesame oil (if using). Toss everything well, and cook for another two minutes to ensure all the flavours mix together well. Serve your kung pao chicken immediately, ideally with rice.
- You can add your favourite vegetables such as broccoli, bell peppers and long beans to the dish too. After you've browned and removed the chicken from the pan, stir fry your cut vegetables for a few minutes. Then put them aside to add to the rest of the ingredients for the final stir fry and coating later.
- If you are not able to find Shaoxing wine, we recommend replacing it with dry sherry.
Calories have been calculated using an online calculator. Nutritional information offered on Honest Food Talks is for general information purposes and are only rough estimations.
SF Cooking Studio has a complete video recipe on how to prepare this popular Chinese fakeaway dish. We recommend you check out their video below before attempting at your own kitchen!
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