As much as I love true wok cooking, I often have to improvise a bit when I make Chinese food at home. That’s because my home kitchen, perhaps like yours, isn’t equipped for too much culinary craziness. My stovetop can only create so much sizzle, and once it does get going, the creaky exhaust fan fights to keep up. So I’ve learned a few tricks over the years to reproduce my favorite Chinese dishes without smoking up the house or running across town to pick up specialty ingredients. Kung Pao chicken, an iconic Sichuan chicken stir-fry with a sweet and spicy sauce, is one of my recent successes.
My take on Kung Pao chicken includes a few ingredient tweaks. While Sichuan chiles fuel a traditional Kung Pao, I’ve found that almost any good dried chile will stand in nicely (try small Thai chiles, which are available in many markets). Although black rice vinegar gives Kung Pao its customary tang, balsamic vinegar is a fine substitute. And while the peanuts are generally left whole in traditional Kung Pao, I find that chopping the nuts helps incorporate them better into the dish.
I do have a well seasoned wok, but for this dish, I generally pull out a large, heavy skillet. It’s great for cooking a large batch of chicken—the pan’s wide surface area heats up evenly on a flat stovetop and sears efficiently without unnecessary smoke. I also like to dredge the chicken in cornstarch before sautéing. This quick toss gives the chicken a light coating, which helps it brown easily, stay juicy, and absorb and thicken the spicy sauce.
With prepping and cooking, the whole dish comes together in about a half hour, which is enough time to steam some white rice to serve alongside. Now you have a quick meal that’s better than take-out from your favorite restaurant.
1. Lightly dredge chunks of chicken in cornstarch to give them a protective coating and to help them brown evenly.
2. Sear the chicken on both sides to give the dish a deep, rich flavor base.
3. Stir in the aromatics and then the pepper and celery, and cook until they soften slightly.
4. Add a soy-sesame sauce to the pan and, within moments, it will thicken and the dish will be ready to serve.