Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Stir Fry Confidential - Gong Bao/Kung Pao Chicken 宫保雞丁

These days, it seems like everyone is an expert in stir frying, main culprits being the celebrity/TV chef and this makes me mad. Not that there is any thing wrong with that. After all, the popularising of Chinese cuisine is nothing but a good thing. But I do sometimes wish that they would spend a bit more effort, conducting more research into the true art of Stir Fry. Just by tossing everything in a pan and Bob's your uncle DOES NOT makes it a Chinese stir fry.

Fair enough that not every domestic kitchen can afford to turn up the heat so high that they risk either setting the house on fire or worse, losing their eyebrows (we still have to face the world the following day). Anyhow with all the ceramic stoves available, the 'Wok Hei' or breath of the wok that is so important in a good stir fry is virtually impossible to attain. But that is not to say that we have to neglect the rest of the basics that attribute to this famous style of cooking from the Chinese culinary world. Here are some example of this travesty.

First and foremost - the wok, without which a good stir fry is almost certainly bound to fail. You can of course use a large frying pan instead but the results will not be the same. And I'm not talking about those fancy, expensive non-stick wok. A good wok should be made from simple carbon steel which can be bought cheaply from any good Chinese supermarket. Once properly seasoned, this curved vessel will allow you to scoop, toss and stir yourself into genuine stir fry heaven. By season, I do not mean laden it with salt and pepper. You first scrub your new wok with a metal mesh scrubber to get rid of the protective coating applied by the manufacturer. Then you dry it and then heat the empty wok over low heat until smoking. This helps to burn off any excess coating. Gradually, the wok will start to turn a deep brown colour. Remove from heat, brush with a thin layer of cooking oil and place back onto the heat for another 10 minutes or so until the wok completely changes into this dark brown, almost black tinge. Remove and give it a good clean with a sponge and some warm water. Never clean you seasoned wok with soap. Wipe dry and then brush with a thin layer of oil before storing. Your wok is now 'seasoned'. Woo-hoo!

Then there the actual stir frying. Always make sure to heat the wok first until it is smoking before adding the oil. This prevent the food from sticking.

The velveting technique is another process that is almost neglected by all. Maybe its due to health issues as this uses an eyes-popping, jaws-dropping amount of oil but this plays a crucial part in resulting a successful stir fry. And to be honest, you are not going to consume all the oil used for this as most will be drained away. A good alternative is to 'velvet' the  marinated meat by blanching them quickly in boiling water but this works better with seafood.

And to demonstrate this, I have made a classic Szechuan dish, Gong Bao or Kung Pao Chicken. This vastly popular dish appears in almost every Chinese restaurant and takeaways yet it is one that often disappoint. Most fails to execute the laborious velveting technique thereby yielding some dry and chewy chicken. If you've ever had a good meal in a Chinese restaurant and often find yourself wondering how on earth did they managed to produce such smooth and velvety chicken bites. Well, this is the secret. And if you ever choose to use breast instead of thigh for any future stir fry, you'll be surprise at the difference made by using this technique.

Ingredients (Serves 4)

6 free-range chicken thighs, boned, skinned and cut into 2cm cubes
2 tbsp groundnut oil, plus 150ml for velveting technique *see method below*
a large hanful of dried red chillies, roughly about 8-10, cut into rough 2-3cm length
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
1 tsp whole Szechuan peppercorn
1 tbsp shaoxing rice wine
3 spring onion, cut into small rings
100g unsalted peanuts, toasted

For the marinade:
2 tsp light soy sauce
2 tsp shaoxing rice wine
1 tsp corn flour
pinch of sea salt
1 tbsp egg white, lightly beaten

For the sauce:
1 tsp dark soy sauce
2 tsp light soy sauce
2 tsp sugar
1 tbsp Chinkiang dark vinegar
1 tbsp chicken stock or water
1 tsp cornflour
1 tsp sesame oil


In a bowl, add the chicken cubes with all the ingredients for the marinade and mix thoroughly. Leave to marinate for 20-30 minutes.

To prepare the sauce, mix all the ingredients  in a separate small bowl and set aside.

For the velveting, heat up the oil in a hot wok over medium heat until smoking. Add the marinated chicken and quickly blanch them in the hot oil for about 30 seconds. Remove using a bamboo sieve and leave to drain on some kitchen paper to remove excess oil. Do this in batches if necessary.

Pour away all the oil in the wok. Clean with a brush and place the wok back onto the heat and heat over high heat until smoking. Add the oil and swirl it round to coat the wok. Add the dried chilli and Szechuan peppercorn and stir fry for 10 seconds, until fragrant before adding the garlic, ginger and stir fry for another 30 seconds, until they release their aroma.

Add the velveted chicken and stir fry for 1 minute, using a scoop and toss action. Splash the rice wine around the side of the wok, stirring and tossing as you go along. 

Add the spring onions and continue to stir for another 30 seconds before giving the prepared sauce a good stir and add to the wok. Continue to stir and cook until the sauce began to thicken and coat the chicken thoroughly.

Scatter in the toasted peanut, give a good stir to mix and then remove to a serving dish. Serve immediately.

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