The first time I had Kung Po Chicken was actually in China during my gap year... and I confess it was because it was one of the few things I recognised on the menu and I thought it would be safe! Before you judge me for being a wimp, let me point out that it was one of my first few days there and I was yet to get used to real Chinese food... I promise I became a lot more adventurous and fast learnt to prefer the real thing to our western interpretation! (I'll save the stories of the more adventurous meals for another post- perhaps with a warning only to read if you're of a strong disposition!)
Although I had never actually had the dish at home (I only knew it as one of my Dad's favourites) it became a firm favourite of my own and I looked forward to being able to have the dish at home and reliving the memories. Except it doesn't work like that, does it? Unfortunately this is one of the many dishes that hasn't survived the journey very well (or at least not the versions I've tried) as the western version is nothing like the one I so fondly remember. Except for the chicken. And the peanuts. Oh OK, and the chilli. But apart from those few things it's completely and utterly different. It's too sweet, too gloopy and lacking a certain something. The Gong Bao Chicken (as it's called in China... except for the 'chicken' part, I just don't know how to spell that!) I remember so fondly had a freshness to it that lit up your tongue, and each of the flavours stood out and played their part.
After years of reminiscing, I stumbled across a recipe so similar that it gives me flashbacks. The same freshness and the same bold flavours. The book I found it in is quite possibly my favourite of all (which is a bit like choosing a favourite child- but oh well, it happens) and not only because it gave me my beloved Gong Bao Chicken. The book is called Mighty Spice, and first of all is one of the prettiest books I own- the food photography is so beautiful, I'd quite happily frame the pictures. Second of all, there are countless recipes in it that I have either tried and loved (as you will soon come to realise) or am desperate to try out- for most books, if there are as many as five recipes I'd like to try I count it as a keeper! Third of all, the author cleverly keeps the number of spices in each recipe down to five, and uses many of the same spices frequently, which helps to keep costs down. If you enjoy cooking with different spices, and enjoy fresh and vibrant dishes, but perhaps have been somewhat nervous about where to start, please check out this book- it's a treasure! You can read more about it and buy it here (UK) or here (USA).
As a little taster of the book, please try this one (although, as is typical of me, a little bit tweaked from the original)... it's delicious, healthy, quick, easy and inexpensive to make- sound pretty good for a starting point?! Yeah, I thought so too.
75g unsalted peanuts (or simply wash salted ones if that's all you can find!)
500g boneless and skinless chicken thigh, cut into 2" cubes
2 red chillies, both deseeded- one finely chopped, one finely sliced
1 yellow pepper, finely sliced
5 spring onions, chopped into roughly 2cm pieces
2 garlic cloves, minced
2.5cm/ 1 inch piece root ginger, chopped into fine matchsticks
2 tblspns sesame oil
4 tblspns soy sauce
3/4 tspn szechuan peppercorns (these little dudes make this dish! Think as fragrant as cardamom but the kick of pepper- amazing!)
1 tblspn cornflour
1) Toast the peanuts for 2-3 minutes, until golden.
2) Toss the chicken in the cornflour and two tblspns of the soy sauce and put in the fridge to chill for ten minutes.
3) Heat your wok/ high sided fry pan on high and then add the oil. Once the oil is hot, remove the pan from the heat and add the peppercorns and the chopped (but not the sliced) chilli and keep moving for 30 seconds.
4) Return the pan to a high heat, add the chicken and cook for 3 minutes, keeping it moving constantly.
5) Add in the garlic, ginger, yellow pepper, spring onions, peanuts and remaining chillies and cook for a further 2 minutes.
6) Toss in the remaining soy sauce and serve immediately.
This has so much flavour it doesn't need anything else, so we simply served it with steamed rice and prawn crackers.