Kung Pao Chicken

Please welcome contributor Garrett McCord of Vanilla Garlic as he shares one of his favorite go-to Chinese (American) dishes, Kung Pao Chicken. ~Elise

Kung Pao Chicken (also known as Gong Bao or Kung Pow) is probably the dish most associated with Chinese food in America. This dish is also one of the most authentic dishes on the menus of Chinese restaurants and owes its fiery flavor to two particular ingredients: chilies and Szechuan peppercorns.

The chili peppers most commonly used for Chinese cooking are Tien Tsin chilies, named for their provence of origin. They’re quite hot and possess an earthy pungency. Szechwan (or Sichuan) peppercorns were actually banned by the FDA until 2005 due to their potential to carry citrus canker. Now they’re permitted for import but only after they’ve been heat treated. Rather than being hot or pungent, they’re slightly citrusy and create a slight numbing, tingling sensation as opposed to the burning, hot sensations of peppers and chilies (think the tingle on your tongue from a carbonated drink). You can find both in Asian markets or order them easily (and cheaply) online as a little goes a long way.

If you like spice then this is your dish. You can use any red dried chilies and the Szechwan peppercorns are optional, though the dish isn’t the same without them and there isn’t a good substitute. Like any stir-fry this is quick, cheap, and flavorful. It’s also an exemplary example of Szechwan cuisine due to its combination of sweet, sour, salty, and hot tastes. Serve with rice and a hearty dark beer.

Kung Pao Chicken Recipe

  • Yield: Serves 4.


  • 2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons of sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon of Szechwan peppercorns (optional)
  • 8 red, dried chili peppers
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tablespoon of freshly grated ginger
  • 6 green onions, chopped
  • 2/3 cup of roasted, unsalted peanuts

For the marinade

  • 2 teaspoons of soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of sherry or Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 tablespoon of water
  • 2 teaspoons of cornstarch

For the sauce

  • 3 teaspoons of Chinkiang or 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons of soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon of sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon of water
  • 3 teaspoons of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of cornstarch


1 Mix together the marinade ingredients. Chop the chicken into bite sized pieces and toss them in the marinade and set aside.

2 Combine all the ingredients for the sauce, whisking well to ensure the cornstarch is fully incorporated. Set aside.

3 Thinly slice the garlic. Break the chilies open and discard the seeds inside, then cut them into a few large pieces (the dish will already be very hot, keeping the seeds will make it near inedible).

4 Place the 2 1/2 tablespoons of sesame oil in a wok or large saute pan and place over medium-high heat. Add the chilies and Szechwan peppercorns if using. Stir-fry for a few second until they become fragrant being careful not to burn them. Add the chicken, as soon as the pieces have separated add the ginger, garlic, and green onions. Stir-fry for a few minutes until the chicken is cooked through.

5 Add the sauce and toss. When the sauce becomes thick add the peanuts, toss, and serve.

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Szechwan Peppercorns on Wikipedia
Szechwan Peppercorn Ban Ends

Showing 4 of 21 Comments

  • MaryMoh

    Kung Pao Chicken is indeed very popular among the Chinese. I cook it very often too. Yours looks very delicious.

    Thanks! A more traditional sauce usually calls for light and dark soy sauces, however using whatever you have on hand is fine too. ~Garrett

  • Robin

    Thank you so much! The only stir-fry recipe I know and like calls for hoisin sauce, which I can’t get where I live. I think I can find most of these other ingredients, or reasonable substitutes, here.

    Perfect! Yeah, a lot of these ingredients have “American” counterparts, save the Szechwan peppercorns which you can order online for pretty cheap. ~Garrett

  • Renee

    Oooooh! This sounds very good! I love cooking Chinese food! We have a bottle of sake that has been waiting for something like this.Thanks!

    This is a very strong flavored dish. I would suggest saving the sake for dessert or pairing this with beer as, assuming it’s a more delicate sake, it’ll be annihilated. ~Garrett

  • Susan

    Of necessity we are a peanut-free household. Is there a tree nut that could replace the peanuts without changing the final dish too much?

    Thank you.

    Cashews are an option. You can also switch the chicken out for pork, beef, shrimp or even firm tofu if you wish. ~Garrett

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