One of the many things I love about a trip to Beijing is the chance to attend a few cookery classes, pick up new recipes and tips and improve techniques under the watchful eye of a professional Chinese chef. This recipe for Gong Bao chicken from my recent visit is so good that I feel like taking to the streets with a placard and megaphone to encourage everyone to try it. It has to be one the tastiest and best value winter warmers around and perfect for the coming cold snap. But first a bit of the back story on the recipe.
I am particularly fond of Hutong Cuisine where the cheerful and practical Chunyi, who trained in Sichuan Province, takes you through the class in her own inimitable style. I had attended classes there last March that I wrote about in this post and several other posts in April.
There had been a few changes since March. Chunyi’s brother Chao has opened another branch of the cookery school in Chengdu in Sichuan province and Chunyi has built a new kitchen in her house in the hutong with more work stations so that she can take bigger groups. Nothing ever stands still in Beijing for long but cooking with her still reminds me of being in my granny’s kitchen.
This time I attended a Sichuan class in the company of two young professional chefs, one from England and one from Australia, who work on a private yacht. They were touring China learning authentic Chinese recipes to adapt for the yacht and had already been to cookery schools in Chengdu and Yangshou. Can’t you just feel my envy. Happy cooking guys and thanks for your company.
Whenever I cook in China, whether at home with Shan’s MaMa or at a cookery class, I am reminded of how deep frugality runs in the veins of Chinese cooks – a legacy of the famine years. Food is never wasted. Only the small amounts of ginger, garlic or spring onion needed for a dish are prepared. Left overs are retained for future use. Scraps go into cooking oil to flavour the oil used for drizzling or deep frying. Water used to blanch meat of its impurities is thrown over herbs growing in the garden or in a pot on the window ledge. The cheapest ingredient available is always used – peanuts instead of cashew nuts, cornflour instead of potato flour, leeks instead of spring onions.
Growing up in Wexford in the 1960s, we called salad “lettuce and leeks”. When I came to live in Dublin I learned that what I called “leeks” were actually “scallions” or “spring onions”. I was amused to find the same language at play in Beijing in the 21st century where the terms leek and spring onion are used interchangeably because leeks are plentiful in the north all year round and a good, cheap substitute. Leeks also tend to work better in the heavier northern Chinese dishes using beef or pork while spring onions are best with more delicately flavoured Cantonese dishes and with fish. Either can be used with chicken.
We prepared five dishes. One of them was gong bao ji ding – Gong Bao chicken, a classic Sichuan dish named for a Qing dynasty governor of Sichuan province whose title translated literally as “palace guardian”. You will find variations of it on the menu of many western Chinese restaurants and take aways where it is sometimes described as Kung Po chicken but it rarely bears much resemblance to the authentic Sichuan version. Chunyi’s recipe comes from Sichuan Province and the result is a magical combination of hot and numbing ma la flavours balanced out by the sweet sour sauce.
Here are a few useful tips I learned from Chun Yi for getting the perfect result.
Score the chicken in a cross-hatch pattern at about ½ cm intervals so that it absorbs more of the flavour of the marinade.
The cornflour in the marinade is used to seal in the flavour. It needs to be fully absorbed into the chicken – see the description of “velveting” the chicken below. In the sauce it is used for thickening.
A handy way of deseeding the chillies is to chop them into lengths and then toss them into a strainer over your bowl for catching scraps. The seeds fall away easily and it saves effort tidying up (and chasing stray chilli seeds with a dustpan!).
Cook the chilli and Sichuan peppercorns in oil over low heat to release their fragrance. The idea is to flavour the oil left behind in the wok so that it gently suffuses the rest of the dish. In the past I have made the mistake of starting with the heat too high, setting off myself and anyone else in the kitchen in a coughing and spluttering fit, when the peppercorns and chilli hit the hot oil, and creating a smoky, burnt flavour.
The Chinese don’t usually eat whole Sichuan peppercorns. They consider them too difficult to digest. They are used to flavour the oil and then discarded, leaving behind as much as possible of the oil. The mildly numbing sensation is retained by the oil and, when combined with the dried chillies, gives the dish its classic Sichuan ma la flavour. They don’t eat the dried chillies either but pick them up with chopsticks to suck the sauce off them and then leave them to one side.
The peanuts or cashew nuts can be deep fried or, as a healthier option, dry-roasted in the oven for about 15 minutes at 150 degrees C before use.
Now back home in Dublin, I cooked this dish last night using dry roasted cashew nuts and 450g chicken thighs boned out for me by a lovely young butcher at James Whelan’s award winning butcher shop at Avoca Food Market in Monkstown.
I prefer to use chicken thigh rather than breast in this dish and the result was succulent and lip-smacking. Long after dinner I was still sucking the last remnants of the caramelised sauce from the dried chillies.
Gong bao chicken – gong bao ji ding
Serves 2 – 3 people as one of a number of dishes or 2 as the main course. For a single main course for 3 people increase the chicken to 450g and adjust the other ingredients accordingly but use a roomy wok.
- 300 g skinned chicken breast or thigh, scored in a criss cross pattern and cut into 1½ cm cubes
- 2 tbs of dry roasted cashew or peanuts
- Cooking oil (groundnut or sunflower)
- ¼tsp salt
- 1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine*
- 2 tsp light soy sauce*
- 4 tsp water
- 4 tsp cornflour
- 2 garlic cloves,thinly sliced
- equivalent amount of ginger in thumbnail size slices
- 2 spring onions, white parts only, cut into 1½ cm sections
- 10 pieces of dry chillies (Sichuan “facing heaven” chillies or Chinese long chillies), cut into 1½ cm sections and seeds removed*
- 2 tsp Sichuan peppercorns*
- 6 tsp sugar
- 3 tsp light soy sauce*
- slightly more than 1 tsp Chinese black vinegar*
- slightly less than 1 tsp dark soy sauce*
- 6 tbs water
- 1 tsp cornflour
- Add the soy sauce, rice wine and salt to the chicken and combine well with a spoon, chop sticks or your hand until all the liquid has been absorbed and the meat it sticky.
- Mix the remaining marinade ingredients – the cornflour and water – together and add to the chicken pieces. Mix well until all the liquid has been absorbed by the chicken. This process, known as “velveting” the meat, tenderises it and seals in its flavour. Set aside for 15 minutes.
- Combine the sauce ingredients and set aside.
- Heat your wok over a high flame to season the wok. When the wok is getting warm, add about 4 tbs of oil, swirl around and reduce the heat immediately to low. Make sure the oil is not too hot.
- Add the dried chillies and deep fry until they turn from red to brown. Remove and set aside, leaving the oil behind.
- Add the Sichuan peppercorns and deep fry until they turn brown in colour. Then remove and discard the peppercorns, leaving the flavoured oil behind.
- Still on a low heat, add the ginger, garlic and spring onion and stir to release their aromas.
- Increase the heat slightly until the garlic just begins to brown.
- Add the chicken pieces gradually and stir them in gently, pushing them to one side as they become white and separate before adding more to the centre of the wok, until all are cooked through. Be careful to keep all the ingredients on the move so as not to burn the seasonings.
- When the chicken is cooked, add back the chilli, give the sauce a quick stir to ensure the sugar is dissolved and pour it around the chicken.
- When it comes to the boil, mix well with the chicken so that it thickens and coats the meat.
Turn off the heat, add the nuts, mix well and serve immediately with plain steamed rice.
*You can get these ingredients in any Asian market and the good spice ranges include Sichuan peppercorn. See this post on Chinese kitchen essentials for more information. I brought back a large bag of wonderful Sichuan peppercorns from Beijing so if you would like to try a small sample of the real thing just email your postal address to firstname.lastname@example.org.