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.
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.
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
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.