FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Mark R. Vogel
Sichuan, (also spelled Szechwan), is the second largest province of China, and is located in the south-western part of the country. One of the more densely populated regions of China, its populace is ethnically diversified. Surrounded by mountains and interlaced by the Yangtze River and its tributaries, Sichuan is one of China’s most fertile areas. A significant amount of the province is dedicated to farming. Sichuan leads China in rice production, but also produces numerous other agricultural products such as corn, sweet potatoes, wheat, barley, and soybeans. Sichuan’s bamboo forests are home to the beloved panda.
Sichuan cuisine is a medley of influences including Indian, Thai, and believe it or not, American. Sichuan embraces numerous vegetable dishes. For millennia Buddhist customs dictated a meatless diet, a practice that made its mark on Sichuan’s culinary landscape. However, the use of beef is also prevalent, inevitably due to the widespread use of oxen in the region. Sichuan cuisine is distinguished from China’s other culinary regions by its spiciness, from chile peppers, and its nutty flavors, due to Sichuan peppercorns, sesame seeds and sesame oil. Other common ingredients include fish, fermented and pickled vegetables, hot bean sauces, and greater use of ginger and garlic than other areas of China.
The reliance on chile peppers is probably the primary hallmark of Sichuan cooking. The chile pepper was introduced to China from the Americas soon after the European powers began to colonize the New World. Sichuan is a landlocked province with hot, humid summers and chilly, foggy winters. It is believed that spicy food opens the pores and cools the body in summer, yet warms the blood in winter. Gong Bao chicken, with its ample dose of chile peppers, is a proud example of Sichuan’s hot and spicy heritage.
Gong Bao Chicken (also spelled Kung Pao), is a popular dish in China which in all likelihood originated in Sichuan. There is some disagreement over how the dish received its moniker. One version asserts that it is named after a general who lived during the Qing dynasty (1636 – 1912). In another variation, its namesake is a crown prince. Supposedly, the prince discovered the dish while traveling abroad and then brought the recipe back to the Imperial Court. In yet another twist, it may have been named after the person assigned to protect the heir to the throne since “Kung” means castle and “Pao” means protect. And in a final version, it is said to be named after a late Qing Dynasty governor of Sichuan called Ding Baozhen, who particularly relished the dish. Gong Bao was Baozhen’s official title. It is rumored that Ding Baozhen had bad teeth and thus, his chef invented the dish using diced chicken to make it easier for him to chew.
Whatever the origin, Gong Bao chicken was deemed politically incorrect during the Cultural Revolution because it was associated with an imperial bureaucrat. The Cultural Revolution was a period of political rehabilitation launched by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1966 in an effort to secure Maoism (Zedong’s brand of Marxist/Leninist communism), as the state’s dominant ideology. But enough politics.
Gong Bao chicken is traditionally served over white rice. Traditional Asian rice is a short grain rice which has higher amounts of certain carbohydrates than long grain rices. This imparts the rice with its characteristic stickiness as opposed to long grain rices that are fluffier and better suited for rice pilaf. Although some supermarkets may carry it, it’s worth a trip to an Asian market to procure genuine Asian rice. While you’re there you can pick up the spice mix for the chicken. Gong Bao chicken spice mix can usually be found in packets or jars in Asian markets. Of course in China, it is customarily made from scratch. The recipe varies from cook to cook but common ingredients include garlic, ginger, hot pepper, salt, vinegar, and sundry other spices.
GONG BAO CHICKEN
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons rice wine
1 lb. chicken breast meat diced into half inch cubes
Salt, as needed
Vegetable oil, as needed
6 dried chile peppers (more or less to taste)
1 packet Gong Bao seasoning mix
¼ cup chopped peanuts (optional)
Cooked white Asian rice as needed
Whisk the cornstarch and rice wine in a bowl. Mixing a starch with a liquid is called a slurry. This facilitates the dissolving of the cornstarch and will inhibit clumping. Next, season the chicken with some salt. Mix the chicken and the slurry and allow it to marinate for a few minutes. Meanwhile, heat up the vegetable oil in a skillet and add the chiles. Sauté for a few minutes until the chiles become fragrant. Add the chicken and sauté until almost done. Add the seasoning packet and the peanuts. Cook for a minute or two more. Taste and add additional salt if necessary. Pour over a portion of white rice and serve.
Photo courtesy of www.Travelbylocation.com