Kung Pao Chicken

Classic Chinese American Kung Pao Chicken, with boneless skinless chicken breasts, sesame oil, chili peppers, ginger, and peanuts.

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Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

Please welcome contributor Garrett McCord 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 province 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.

Kung Pao Chicken

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

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  • Prep time: 15 minutes
  • Cook time: 10 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 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

Method

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

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

3 Slice garlic, deseed and chop chilies: 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 Stir-fry chilies and peppercorns: 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.

5 Add chicken, then ginger, garlic, green onions: 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.

6 Add sauce, then peanuts: Add the sauce and toss. When the sauce becomes thick add the peanuts, toss, and serve.

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Garrett McCord

Garrett McCord is a professional writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in many print and online publications such as Gourmet Live, Saveur, Huffington Post, Smithsonian, and NPR. Past clients also include numerous food companies, wineries, and distilleries. Garrett writes about cocktails on his website, Coupe de Grace.

More from Garrett

Links:

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

  • Julie

    Made this tonight, but without the Szechwan peppercorns. I couldn’t wait to make this dish so I tried it without, although I will be ordering them and make it again! But even without them, my family and I ate this up! The kids loved it (I made some without any heat at all, just the marinade and sauce for them) and the flavor was spectacular both ways. Can’t wait to try it with the peppercorns. Thanks for the awesome recipe that is going in my permanent file!

  • [email protected]'s Recipes

    It’s a great recipe. This Kung Pao Chicken is our family’s all time favourite chinese dish. I cook it very often in summer because it goes really well with steamed rice. When it comes to cooking this dish, the Szechwan peppercorn seem not to be very essential, but the dried chili pepper is a must. The crunchy peanuts always become the focal point of my enjoyment, adding more texture into the dish. Very often, I’d pick all the peanuts to eat first.

  • Kris

    Hi! I made this last night and I have to say I was disapointed. The marinade had great flavor and the sauce had great flavor, but together it didn’t taste quite right. It was a little bitter. Too much ginger maybe? I’ve had the peppercorns forever. Do they get old? Oh well. We still ate it!

  • Gail

    Is there a substitute for the corn starch?

    Potato starch. ~Garrett

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