A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from December 11, 2008
Kung Pao Chicken (Kung Po Chicken)

Kung Pao chicken (also spelled “Kung Po” on American menus) originates from the Sichuan Province of China, where it’s called gōng bǎo (palace guardian). The dish is named after Ding Baozhen (1820-1886), who held the palace guardian title. Kung Pao chicken is cited in English since at least 1961 (from California); New York City citations of the dish begin in 1971.

The original Sichuan dish contains chillies and Sichuan peppercorns; many Sichuan cooks frown on adding peanuts to the recipe. Sichuan peppercorns were illegal to import into the United States from 1965 ot 2005, so they do not appear in most American recipes. American versions of Kung Pao chicken usually contain peanuts, soy sauce, and chili peppers. Other meats and even tofu are often substituted for the chicken.


Wikipedia: Kung Pao chicken)
Kung Pao chicken (also spelled Kung Po chicken) is a classic dish in Szechuan cuisine, originating in the Sichuan Province of central-western China. The dish is named after Ding Baozhen (1820–1886), a late Qing Dynasty official. Born in Guizhou, Ding served as head of Shandong province and later as governor of Sichuan province. His title was Gōng Bǎo (宮保), or palatial guardian. The name “Kung Pao” chicken is derived from this title.

The dish exists in both traditional Sichuan and Westernized versions; the latter is more popular in the United States and Canada.

Sichuan version
The original Sichuan version of Kung Pao chicken, uses chicken (鸡; in Chinese) as its primary ingredient. In this authentic original version, diced chicken is typically mixed with a prepared marinade. The wok is seasoned and then the chillies and Sichuan peppercorns are flash fried to add fragrance to the oil. Then the chicken is stir fried and vegetables, along with peanuts, are added. Shaoxing wine is used to enhance flavor in the marinade.

Kung Pao Chicken is considered an Asian delicacy for most. It starts off with fresh, moist, unroasted peanuts or cashew nuts. These are often used instead of their pre-roasted versions. The peanuts or cashew nuts are dropped into the hot oil on the bottom of the wok first, then deep fried until golden brown before the other ingredients are added.

In Sichuan, or when preparing authentic gōng bǎo jī dīng, only Sichuan-style chilis such as cháo tiān jiāo (朝天椒) or qī xīng jiāo (七星椒) are used. Smaller, thinner Sichuanese varieties may also be used.

The most important component of the dish is handfuls of Sichuan peppercorns (花椒; pinyin: huā jiāo). It is these peppercorns that give authentic gōng bǎo jī dīng its distinctive numbing flavor. Use of má là wèi xíng (痲辣味型), or hot and numbing flavor, is a typical element of Sichuan cooking. Sichuan peppercorns, along with red chilis, are the key components of má là wèi xíng.

Westernized versions
Westernized versions, usually called “Kung Pao chicken,” commonly consist of diced marinated chicken stir-fried with skinless unsalted roasted peanuts, red bell peppers, sherry or rice wine, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, and chili peppers. Although chicken is traditionally used, seafood items such as shrimp or scallops, or other meats such as beef or pork, are sometimes used in place of the chicken (although typically only a single meat or seafood is used). It can also be prepared with tofu instead of meat.

In order to prepare Western-style Kung Pao chicken, bits of diced raw chicken are marinated, then dusted with cornstarch, and then a Chinese wok is heated on a high flame, without oil, until it is quite hot. A swish of the ladle spreads a couple of teaspoons of peanut oil, then the chicken is flash fried in the hot oil to bring out the flavor of very slightly charred or grilled meat, but not so long that it loses its juices or tenderness. Next, grated garlic and the vegetables are added, followed by Chinese rice wine, along with a sweet sauce. A tiny drizzle of sesame oil provides the tang, peanuts are added, and the dish is ready in about one and a half minutes, from the time the oil first hits the wok.

Kung Pao chicken is a very popular staple of North American Sichuan-style Chinese restaurants, and many recommend using it as a measure of the skills of a chef.

Whereas the original Chinese version of the dish includes Sichuan peppercorns as an integral ingredient, the Western version does not. From 1968 until 2005 it was illegal to import Sichuan peppercorns into the United States. They were viewed as potential carriers of citrus canker, a tree disease that can potentially harm citrus crops. The ban has now been lifted in light of new processing methods. However, the 37-year ban resulted in a distinct American version of the recipe that does not incorporate Sichuan peppercorns.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Main Entry: kung pao
Pronunciation: \ˈkəŋ-ˈpau̇, ˈküŋ-, ˈku̇ŋ-\
Function: adjective
Etymology: Chinese (Beijing) gōng bǎo, literally, palace guardian
Date: 1976
: being stir-fried or sometimes deep-fried and served in a spicy hot sauce usually with peanuts <kung pao chicken>

24 February 1961, San Mateo (CA) Times, pg. 18, col. 4:
Met personable Ethel Chang of the Moon Gate Restaurant the other p.m. Ethel, who recently took over this 2507 El Camino Real location, has prepared a very outstanding all-Chinese food menu. Such entrees as Mongolian Beef, Kung Pao chicken, and sweet and sour fish are yours for the ordering. 

22 January 1971, New York (NY) Times, “Authentic Chinese Dishes” by Craig Claiborne, pg. 45:
Little Peking Restaurant, Inc., 1 Doyers Street, 267-8290.
(...)
kung po chicken, cubed chicken with fiery-hot red peppers; and shredded pork in hoi-sin sauce.

11 December 1971, New York (NY) Times, “For 6 Chinese Delegates, a ‘Take-Out’ Banquet” by Raymond A. Sokolov, pg. 20:
Then, in quick succession came Szechuanese camphor-smoked duck; Buddha’s Delight, a Contonese vegetarian dish of sauteed water chestnuts, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, snow peas, gingko nuts, and bok choy; King Jang shredded pork from Peking; Kung pao chicken with chilies, from Szechuan;...

30 November 1972, San Antonio (TX) Express, “In Chinese Cooking: Taste a Little Texas” by Jane Ulhrich, pg. 9D, cols. 1-2:
Craign Claiborne, who collaborated with Virginia Lee in writing “The Chinese Cookbook, is in San Antonio this week demonstrating cooking at Josko’s.
(...)
Kung Pao Chicken, a dish he prepared Wednesday in the Chinese session, is one ofthe spicy Szachwan dishes which would appeal to Southwesterners.

“I think Szechwan cooking is more like Texas cooking than any other area,” says Mr. Claiborne, noting the use of hot chilies.

14 June 1973, Long Beach (CA) Press-Telegram, ‘Stepping Out” by Tedd Thomey, pg. A35, col. 1:
DEPT. OF SUCH EXOTIC MANDARIN CUISINE AS SHRIMP WITH BEAN SAUCE, KUNG PO BEEF, MU HSU PORK, LUCHEE CHICKEN OR PEIPING PORK.

4 June 1976, Chicago (IL) Tribune, “Mandarin restaurants: Rating the Far East feasts in Chicago and suburbs” by Mary Knoblauch and Charles Leroux, sec. 3, pg. 2, col. 3:
Mastering Mandarin—an orientation
(...)
Chicken with peanuts, sometimes called chicken of Duke Ting or kung-bao chicken or kung-pao chicken or princess chicken or diced Szechwan chicken, is a good introduction to the peppery food of Szechwan and Hunan. Whole skinless roasted peanuts and dried red chili peppers give it character.

19 January 1977, New York (NY) Times, “Lowly No More— The Time of the Peanut” by Craig Claiborne, pg. 50:
One of the greatest of Szechwan dishes is Kung Pao chicken, a stir-fried dish made with cubed chicken breasts, peanuts and a hot chili sauce. It was named for Ting Kung Pao, a Chinese official who fled Szechwan as a political refugee a few hundred years ago during the Ching Dynasty. We cannot vouch for the fact that the original dish contained peanuts, but at whatever century they were added to the dish it was a marvelous inspiration.
(...)
Chef T. T. Wang’s Kung Pao Chicken
1 large whole chicken breast, skinned and boned, about 10 ounces
1 egg white
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons dry sherry or shao hsing wine
1 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon monosodium glutamate (optional)
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
2 cups peanut, vegetable or corn oil
1 clove garlic, cut into very thin slices
4 hot, dried red peppers
2 scallions, cut on the bias into half-inch pieces
1/2 cup roasted, shelled peanuts
1 teaspoon chili paste with garlic
1 tablespoon water.
1. Cut the chicken into three-quarter-inch cubes. Combine with the egg white and half the cornstarch. Blend well. Refrigerate about half an hour.
2. Combine the dark soy sauce, sherry, sugar, monosodium glutamate and vinegar. Set aside.
3. Heat the oil in a wok or skillet and when it is very hot, add the chicken, stirring rapidly to separate the chicken pieces. Cook only about 30 seconds and drain.
4. Pour off all but about three tablespoons of oil from the wok and add the garlic and hot peppers, stirring. Add the scallion pieces, stirring, and cook about five seconds. Add the peanuts and stir quickly. Add the chili paste and the soy sauce mixture. Add the remaining tablespoon of cornstarch blended with the water. Immediately add the chicken and stir quickly until well blended, about 10 seconds.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

31 December 1978, New York (NY) Times, “Dining Out in the New China” by Craig Claiborne, pg. SM40:
For a more substantial meal, I and a fellow New Yorker, who also dotes on spicy foods, sought out the Cheng Tu restaurant in Peking. And, oh, what a fine, palate-burning feast we had: kung pao chicken, replete with hot peppers and garlic;...

9 July 1979, New York (NY) Times, “De Gustibus” by Craig Claiborne, pg. A14:
One recipe, for example, is the well-known kung pao chicken dish, translated as chicken chunks with peanuts in spicy sauce.
(...)
Kung Pao Chicken
1/2 cup raw peanuts
3 cups peanut
2 whole chicken breasts
1 large egg white
1 1/2 tablespoons water chestnut flour
Sauce:
4 green onions
2 large cloves garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger root
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
1/2 tablespoon Chinese red vinegar
1/2 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 1/2 level teaspoons chili paste with garlic
1 tablespoon dry sherry
Pinch of sugar.
Cornstarch paste. (...)

New York (NY) Times
Kung Pao? No, Gong Bao, and Nix the Nuts
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: November 23, 2005
GUIYANG, China
IT is 7:30 on a Sunday night, and business is booming at Guixi, a large and popular downtown food emporium here.

In smoke-filled private rooms, boisterous men vie to best each other in downing shots of fiery mao-tai, the rice liquor that is this city’s most famous product. In the big open dining room, filled with large round tables where extended families gather, including beaming nanas and cavorting children, there is scarcely an empty seat in the house.

What brings many diners to this restaurant is its famous gong bao jiding, a dish whose perfume wafts through the air, distinctive even over the smell of tobacco smoke.

As it is spoken here, the name of the recipe, one of China’s best-known chicken dishes, would mean little to most Americans. Yet it or something very much inspired by it - kung pao chicken - is one of the most commonly ordered items in Chinese restaurants across the United States.

Guizhou province in south-central China is the ancestral home of the dish, and one visit to Guixi, one of Guiyang’s most famous restaurants, makes clear that where this popular concoction is concerned pronunciation was not the only thing lost in translation during its migration around the globe.

Informed for the first time that something called kung pao chicken is widely eaten in the United States, the restaurant’s veteran chef, Wang Xingyun, who was dressed in a white smock, dingy from hours of work with cleaver and wok, expressed his skepticism with the lifting of one weary eyebrow.

“Whatever they are eating there is certainly not authentic,” he said.

Of course Mr. Wang, a stickler for ingredients and for technique who has been preparing meals built around the dish for over 30 years, says much the same even about what passes for kung pao chicken in Sichuan, the province right next door, where it is almost equally popular and where the dish began its journey across the ocean to America. “Nowadays it’s a mess,” Chef Wang announced, leading a visitor on a tour of his busy kitchen. ‘“Everyone says they can make our food, but they don’t even understand its origins.”

NPR
Gong Bao (Kung Pao) Chicken With Peanuts
(Gong Bao Ji Ding)

NPR.org, May 2, 2008 · This dish, also known as Kung Pao chicken, has the curious distinction of having been labeled as politically incorrect during the Cultural Revolution. It is named after a late Qing Dynasty (late nineteenth century) governor of Sichuan, Ding Baozhen, who is said to have particularly enjoyed eating it — gong bao was his official title. No one can quite agree on the details of its origins: some say it was a dish Ding Baozhen brought with him from his home province of Guizhou; others that he ate it in a modest restaurant when he went out in humble dress to observe the real lives of his subjects; still others, rather implausibly, that his chef invented the finely chopped chicken dish because Ding Baozhen had bad teeth. Whatever the truth of its origins, its association with an imperial bureaucrat was enough to provoke the wrath of the Cultural Revolution radicals, and it was renamed “fast-fried chicken cubes” (hong bao ji ding) or “chicken cubes with seared chiles” (hu la ji ding) until its political rehabilitation in the 1980s.

Gong Bao chicken is beautiful to look at: a glorious medley of chicken flesh, golden peanuts and bright red chiles. The sauce is based on a light sweet-and-sour, pepped up with a deep chile spiciness and a trace of Sichuan pepper that will make your lips tingle pleasantly. The ingredients are all cut in harmony, the chicken in small cubes and the scallion in short pieces to complement the peanuts. The chicken should be just cooked and wonderfully succulent; the nuts are added at the very last minute so they keep their crispness.

Serves 2 as a main dish with a simple stir-fried vegetable and rice, 4 as part of a Chinese meal with three other dishes
2 boneless chicken breasts, with or without skin (about 2/3 pound total)
3 cloves of garlic and an equivalent amount of fresh ginger
5 scallions, white parts only
2 tablespoons peanut oil
a generous handful of dried red chiles (at least 10), preferably Sichuanese
1 teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper
2/3 cup roasted unsalted peanuts

For the marinade:
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine or medium-dry sherry
1 1/2 teaspoons potato flour or 2 1/4 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon water

For the sauce:
3 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon potato flour or 1 1/8 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
3 teaspoons Chinkiang or black Chinese vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon chicken stock or water

1. Cut the chicken as evenly as possible into 1/2-inch strips and then cut these into small cubes. Place in a small bowl and mix in the marinade ingredients.
2. Peel and thinly slice the garlic and ginger, and chop the scallions into chunks as long as their diameter (to match the chicken cubes). Snip the chiles in half or into 2-inch sections. Wearing rubber gloves, discard as many seeds as possible.
3. Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl — if you dip your finger in, you can taste the sweet-sour base of the gong bao flavor.
4. Season the wok, then add 2 tablespoons of oil and heat over a high flame. When the oil is hot but not yet smoking, add the chiles and Sichuan pepper and stir-fry briefly until they are crisp and the oil is spicy and fragrant. Take care not to burn the spices (you can remove the wok from the heat if necessary to prevent overheating).
5. Quickly add the chicken and fry over a high flame, stirring constantly. As soon as the chicken cubes have separated, add the ginger, garlic, and scallions and continue to stir-fry for a few minutes until they are fragrant and the meat is cooked through (test one of the larger pieces to make sure).
6. Give the sauce a stir and add it to the wok, continuing to stir and toss. As soon as the sauce has become thick and shiny, add the peanuts, stir them in, and serve.

Variations
The same dish can be made with cubes of pork, shrimp, or prawns.
Cashew nuts can be used instead of peanuts for a grander version of this dish, although peanuts are more traditional.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • Thursday, December 11, 2008 • Permalink