Ingredients: red and green bell pepper, celery, water chestnut, peanut, scallion, dried whole chili, Szechuan peppercorn, peanut oil, sesame oil, soy sauce, Chingkiang vinegar, dry sherry, palm sugar, garlic, ginger.
Served with: white rice.
Kung Pao is another one of my favorite things to find when opening a Chinese takeout box. [I wrote about Shrimp & Snow Peas here.] The authentic Chinese version is nothing but chicken and peanuts, but I find that Kung Pao translates pretty well as a vegetarian dish. The peanuts go a long way toward filling out the savory flavor profile.
All things considered, Kung Pao is not hard to make at home. However, there are 3 essential ingredients that you might not have handy.
First on the list are Szechuan peppercorns. These wonderfully fragrant little berry husks are not actually peppercorns at all, but do perform a similar function. When enough Szechuan pepper is taken at once, the effect is an interesting numbing sensation.
The next essential ingredient is the dried whole chili pepper. A couple of these are toasted in the wok before the stir fry starts, so as to add a deep smoky heat to the oil. I love how this combines with the Szechuan pepper to create multi-layered spiciness.
Finally, Chinese “black vinegar” is a must for the sauce. I used a variant called Chinkiang. It’s an aged rice vinegar with a pungent, malty taste. I don’t use this for anything other than making Kung Pao, but it’s totally worthwhile, and I’m almost finished the bottle I got a year ago.
I began the Kung Pao by chopping and organizing all the vegetables I intended to use. To prep the wok sauce, I made a slurry of cornstarch and water in a plastic bowl, then added soy sauce, dry sherry, the Chinkiang vinegar, and a big spoonful of palm sugar (which balances out the tartness of all that vinegar). I also added some crushed garlic and ginger, though I like to strain those out after their flavors have been absorbed into the sauce.
I set the wok on high heat, then tossed in 4 or 5 whole chilies. When they began to blacken, I added peanut oil to the wok, then the bell peppers. After a few minutes of stir-frying, I added the celery, water chestnuts, and peanuts, plus a heaping teaspoon of ground Szechuan pepper. The air was thick with spicy smoke, enough to force a few tears out! I put a stop to that by finally adding the sauce mixture, which thickened up quickly, followed by the scallions (which should always be added last, because their flavor breaks down quickly with heat). I swirled in a bit of sesame oil as a finishing touch.
I ate the spicy, tangy Kung Pao with plain white rice, and ascended shortly thereafter to Heaven. It was so good.