Kung Pao Chicken is a staple among Chinese takeout dishes. It has everything from juicy chicken to tender vegetables to a well balanced sauce. My recipe for this dish has all those things as well as tips and tricks on how to master it at home.
Next up in my better than restaurant (or takeout) series is kung pao chicken! My first memory of kung pao chicken is eating it at the local mall with my friends. I always got it from Panda Express, and it was honestly one of my favorite spicy Chinese chicken recipes. I know I am not supposed to say I like Panda Express, but I just did. It was never as good as my mom’s chicken dishes like her Chinese chicken and mushroom (my personal favorite), but it did the job when I was out and about with my friends. And that was enough for me!
What is kung pao chicken?
Kung pao chicken originates from the Sichuan province of China. It got its name from Ding Baozhen whose title was Taizi Shabao, which is one of Gongbao. Traditionally, it is made with chicken, Sichuan peppercorns, Sichuan chili peppers, garlic, peanuts, leeks and Shaoxing wine. All of these ingredients are cooked in a hot wok, and it all comes together in less than 20 minutes.
There are many variations of this dish from that region using different proteins like shrimp or even frog legs. And there are even more variations from other Chinese provinces. The version I’ve made here is Westernized kung pao chicken which adds a variety of local vegetables instead of leeks and uses little to no chili peppers to tone down the spice level.
Ingredients, Substitutions & Adjustments
- Chicken thighs – I chose to use chicken thighs because they have so much flavor. You can also use chicken breast.
- Dark and light soy sauce – Adds umami flavor and color to the chicken and the sauce. In this kung pao chicken recipe, both are used in the marinade and the sauce. If you want to make this dish gluten free, use tamari instead.
- Rice wine vinegar – Vinegar balances out the rich umami flavors in the rest of the dish. Without vinegar, the dish will taste really salty. If you can’t find rice wine vinegar, substitute with distilled white vinegar.
- Corn starch – Corn starch is used in both the marinade and the sauce. Like I mentioned in my beef and broccoli stir fry, it helps the chicken cook evenly without burning it. It also helps give the sauce its thick consistency.
- Granulated sugar – Adds sweetness to the dish and balances out the umami flavors. Substitute with palm sugar or coconut sugar.
- Hoison sauce – Adds umami flavor to the dish. Substitute with oyster sauce.
- Red chili peppers – Adds a spicy kick to the recipe. Dried red chilis can be really spicy though, so use less or none if you can’t eat spicy food. A good substitute for red chili peppers is a teaspoon of red chili flakes.
- Garlic and ginger – Both ingredients add more flavor to the dish.
- Red and green bell peppers – Bell peppers add texture and more flavor to the dish. Bell peppers can be found in westernized kung pao chicken recipes, but is not common in traditional Chinese kung pao chicken.
- Peanuts – Adds texture and flavor to the dish.
- Green onions – Adds flavor to the dish.
- Salt and pepper for seasoning
How to make kung pao chicken
Kung pao chicken is one of my favorite Chinese dinner recipes. First, marinate your chicken thighs. Combine all the ingredients for the marinade and chicken into a large bowl. Marinate for 30 minutes. While the chicken is marinating, mix the ingredients for the sauce. Set aside. After mixing the sauce, use the remaining time to prep your stir fry ingredients. Cut and mince the garlic, ginger, red bell pepper, green bell pepper, and green onions. Set aside.
Heat 1 tbsp of oil over high heat. Add the chicken and cook for 2-3 minutes until it is brown on all sides. Take the chicken out and set aside. Add the last tablespoon of oil to the pan. Cook the dried red chilli peppers, garlic, and ginger over high heat for ~30 seconds. Add the red and green bell peppers. Cook for 30 seconds. Next, add the cooked chicken and the sauce mixture. Cook for 30 seconds. Combine the water and corn starch and mix. Add the peanuts, green onions, salt, pepper, and corn starch slurry to the pan. Cook for 30 seconds until the sauce has thickened. Serve with a side of white rice.
Tips on how to make the perfect kung pao chicken
What is the key to the perfect kung pao chicken?
The key to a perfect kung pao chicken is high heat. This is true for all Chinese stir fries from sweet and sour chicken to orange chicken. In Chinese restaurants, chefs make this dish in a hot wok, and what makes the dish so good is the high heat. The high heat ensures all the ingredients get cook without the ingredients releasing all their water, making the dish soggy instead of saucy.
Can I use other vegetables in this dish?
Yes! Stir fries can be made with the ingredients you have. Using what you have is how a lot of traditional stir fry recipes are made. For this dish, you can use only red bell peppers or only green peppers. You can also substitute one or both with zucchini and add some yellow onion in there.
Can I make this dish less sweet or less salty?
Yes, I encourage you to play with the ratio of soy sauce and sugar until it is perfect for your tastebuds. To make this dish less sweet, use less sugar or substitute sugar with coconut sugar or palm sugar. To make this dish less salty/umami, use less soy sauce or substitute with a low sodium soy sauce.
Did you make this dish?
If you made this dish, I would love to see!
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Kung Pao Chicken with Homemade Kung Pao Sauce
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 8 dried red chili peppers
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- ¼ oz ginger thinly sliced
- 1 large red bell pepper cut into 1 inch square pieces
- 1 large green bell pepper cut into 1 inch square pieces
- ¼ cup peanuts toasted
- 5 stalked green onions cut into 1 inch pieces
- ¼ tsp salt
- ½ tsp pepper
- 1 tbsp water
- 1 tbsp corn starch
- Combine all the ingredients for the marinade and chicken into a large bowl. Marinate for 30 minutes.
- While the chicken is marinating, mix the ingredients for the sauce. Set aside.
- After mixing the sauce, use the remaining time to prep your stir fry ingredients. Cut and mince the garlic, ginger, red bell pepper, green bell pepper, and green onions. Set aside.
- Heat 1 tbsp of oil over high heat. Add the chicken and cook for 2-3 minutes until it is brown on all sides. Take the chicken out and set aside.
- Add the last tablespoon of oil to the pan. Cook the dried red chilli peppers, garlic, and ginger over high heat for ~30 seconds.
- Add the red and green bell peppers. Cook for 30 seconds.
- Next, add the cooked chicken and the sauce mixture from step 2. Cook for 30 seconds.
- Combine the water and corn starch and mix. Add the peanuts, green onions, salt, pepper, and corn starch slurry to the pan. Cook for 30 seconds until the sauce has thickened.
- Serve with a side of white rice.