Gong Bao chicken with leeks and pistachios

Gong Bao chicken

You just know a dish has got something going for it when it had to undergo name changes and “political rehabilitation” in Communist China. Named for a 19th century Qing dynasty governor of Sichuan, it’s one of the spicy provinces best known culinary creations.

Packed full of signature Sichuan staples like dried chillies and the eponymous lip-tingling, head-spinning peppercorns, it’s a fast, fragrant and exciting dish to make. And surprisingly not too tongue numbingly hot, considering the chillies are in the double digits.

Like so much Chinese cusine the cooking is fast, the ingredient list long (but pretty straightforward) and preparation is key. It’s no good leaving your chicken cooking while you chop your spring onions. You’ll end up with a dry mass welded to your wok. Fine if your scrubbing arm needs a good work out, Not good if you want to eat.

Gong Bao chicken cooking
Fast and furious cooking

This is one for the anal cook – everything needs to be sorted and sliced, put in neat piles, admired and tidied before cooking. Then pause to admire your handiwork again before starting. At the very least make sure it’s all chopped, to hand and ready to go.

Then it’s matter of turning the heat up high then furiously stirring and tossing like a madman. A controlled madman. Unless you’re going for chicken-pebbled ceilings. Ingredients should be crackling, swirling and leaping like céilidh dancers on speed.

After a lot of a stirring and spitting (and the occasional oven glove set aflame), you end up with a gloriously balanced dish. Not just in terms of flavour, but also with texture and sensation as those peppercorns take hold and your mouth starts to tingle and jump.

Gong Bao chicken with pistachios and leeks
The finished – and adapted – Gong Bao chicken

It’s also very adaptable. I didn’t have all the right ingredients and wanted to use up things that weren’t in the recipe. And it all turned out pretty damn fine. Leeks work well, as did substituting pistachios for peanuts and corn for potato flour.

Master the preparation and cooking and you can add and adapt to your heart’s content. Serve with rice or noodles (or even potatoes or bread) and some veg and you’ll have meal to savour.

Gong Bao chicken
Serves two to four with rice, depending on what side dishes you have

Gong Bao chicken ingredients
Getting ready to chop the veg

This recipe is based on the one in Fuschia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery, although it has been adapted and modified according to what I had in the store cupboard. Or mouldering away in the bottom of the fridgee.

That’s the beauty of recipes like this, so much suits a relatively simple cooking method and tasty sauce. You could easily replace the chicken with rabbit, pork or game. And any oniony veg would go well. Same goes for the nuts. I had no peanuts or cashews, so I used pistachios instead. And it tasted great.

The main thing here is to have everything prepared ahead of time, because this cooks quickly. You’ll only need to spend ten minutes or so in front of the stove.

2 chicken breasts cut into 2cm cubes
3 cloves of garlic – finely sliced
1 thumb of ginger – finely sliced
5 spring onions – whites only, sliced into 1 cm chunks
4 slim leeks – washed and sliced into 2cm chunks
10-12 dried chillies
1 tsp whole sichuan peppercorns
A handful of pistachio nuts (or cashews or peanuts)

A pinch of salt
2 tsp light soy suace
1 tsp Shao Xing rice wine
1 and a half tsp corn flour
1 tbslp water

3 tsp caster sugar
Half tsp corn flour
1 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp light soy sauce
3 tsp Chinkiang vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tblsp water

Put the chicken pieces in a bowl and mix together with the marinade ingredients. I use my hands, messy but effective. And weirdly satisfying. Now combine the sauce ingredients in a cup and mix well.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a wok over a high heat. Just before it starts to smoke chuck in the dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns. Shake and stir for about ten seconds until the aromas start to rise.

Throw in the leeks and chicken and stir and fry vigorously until the chicken has turned white. Chuck in the spring onions, garlic and ginger and stir and fry for about another two or three minutes. Pour in the sauce.

Stir and fry some more until the sauce starts to thicken a little and turn glossy. Add the nuts. Keep stir frying until the chicken is cooked through (take a largish piece and slice in half to check). Serve and eat.

15 Responses to “Gong Bao chicken with leeks and pistachios”

  1. catty

    I have to say, the colours in that top photo are AMAZING. I want to eat it straight off the screen!

  2. Mr Noodles

    You learn something new everyday! I didn’t know that Gong Bao had to change its name during the Cultural Revolution!

    Now I wonder if red cooked pork will lose its Chairman Mao tag? There’s something not quite right about a naming an traditional dish after a despot!

  3. shayma

    i adore, adore this dish- it sounds amazing. looks amazing. one of my all-time fave dishes at Chinese restos in the US. it’s interesting to see your spin on it.

  4. The Grubworm

    @catty – thanks! I really believe that you eat with your eyes as well as your mouth. And your nose, ears, touch (well if you’re as … umm … enthusiastic an eater as I am).

    @Mr Noodles – I was interested in this as well. I wonder what other classic Chinese dishes from ages past are lurking under new(ish) names?

    @Shayma – me too! Although I don’t think this is quite the same as those I’ve eaten out… ;) One of these days I will follow a recipe to the letter. Honest I will.

  5. meemalee

    Pistachios? *cries*

    Although I’m sure pistachios work brilliantly in this dish, I’d miss the peanuts/cashews.

    Looks beautiful, mind :)

  6. The Grubworm

    @meemalee – it was either pistachios or it was nothing. I had completely ran out of cashews and peanuts. Still tasted pretty good mind, and at least I didn’t use walnuts ;)

  7. meemalee


    I’m joking – however fond I am of peanuts, I like to substitute stuff too :)

    What did you do with the cucumber? Looks fab – is it pickled?

  8. The Grubworm

    @meemalee – that’s me!! A food apostate… ;D

    As for teh cucumber, just took out the seeds, sliced, heated up a little oil till smoking, chucked in dried chillies and sichuan peppercorns, swirled for 10 seconds, added cucumber, stirred for 10 more seconds then decanted into a bowl, added sesame oil and left to cool. Was all right, but i prefer them lightly pickled.

  9. paul

    This sounds pretty sweet to me, I love the textures you’ve got going on here. I’m thinking I need to get my wok out soon :^D

  10. The Grubworm

    @Paul – Thanks! I’m on a real wok bender at the moment. It just creates so much good food so quickly. I’m definitely going through a Chinese phase in the kitchen at the moment.

  11. Lizzie

    Gong Bao chicken is probably the only thing I’d buy chicken breast for; and still then maybe wouldn’t. Mmm thighs.

    (I alsways use corn flour in place of potato – I really don’t think it makes any difference.)

  12. The Grubworm

    @Lizzie – I always buy whole chicken, which means i have to do something with those breasts… Usually stirfry or griddle. Agree that they’re not a patch on thighs though. Interesting to know that about the corn flour. Seems to perform much the same task to me.

  13. Mzungu

    A good adaptation of a classic dish. That top photo looks awesome.
    Did you use the long dried chillies ?

  14. The Grubworm

    @Mzungu – thanks! I did, that was all that I had in the cupboard. I think they were SE Asian in origin though, so not a million miles away from the Sichuan version.

    @Siany – thanks! Would be interested in hearing how it goes.

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