I’ve been wanting to do a post series on re-doing classic dishes in a healthier way for some time now. To start it off, I thought nothing would be better than giving props to someone who I thought that nicely re-engineered one of my favorite Sichuan Chinese dishes, Kung Pao Chicken.
Charlie Deal’s Jujube Restauant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina is known for its inventive Asian Fusion cuisine. The dish which struck me the most there was his Kung Pao, which is radically different and much more healthier than the one that is made in most Chinese restaurants, which typically has a great deal of oil and not really that much vegetable content in it, if at all. Most versions as served in the United States at Chinese-American restaurants just consist of Chicken, Peanuts, Hot Peppers, and maybe some chopped up celery as an accent flavor. In my opinion, the definitive version of the dish is published in Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land Of Plenty, which is one of the best and most authentic Sichuan cookbooks there is.
Here’s one of my favorite traditional versions, from Chengdu 1 restaurant in Cedar Grove, NJ:
As you can see, it’s in a brown sauce, thickened with cornstarch, with basically no vegetable content in it other than water chestnuts and maybe some onion. It’s tasty, but not optimized for my current diet. It’s also heavily dependent on sopping the sauce up with rice, which leads to more carbyness ingestion.
Here’s another variation that I had at a Korean-Chinese place that I really enjoyed. Again tasty, but healthy, no.
Here’s another really good version of the classic at Mary Chung’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There’s no veggies in this at all. I can’t believe I used to eat like this all the time.
Here’s Charlie Deal’s version at Jujube Restaurant. The difference is dramatic — the vegetable to protein ratio is much higher, and he is using a lighter sauce, which is essentially just soy, Chinese Black Rice Vinegar (which gives the dish its amazing tang and brightness) and seasoned with Sichuan Peppercorns, a small amount of sesame oil, ginger, garlic, and dried Sichuan hot peppers. Another thing I like about this dish is that during dinnertime he does it in a completely vegetarian version using Soy chicken, which cuts down on the fat tremendously.
I loved this dish so much that I ate it on two of the three visits that I made to the restaurant so far. I also was determined to try to replicate it at home and make it part of our usual Asian stir fry night repertoire.
To make my version of this dish, you will need the following
8 oz “Soy Chicken” or Firm Tofu (that has had the water pressed out of it)
12 ounces Chicken Breast, cut up into small pieces (or omit to have completely vegetarian)
1 Bunch Scallions, chopped, whites and greens separated
1 large thumb Ginger, minced
6 cloves Garlic, minced
1 small Napa Cabbage
1lb of Baby or Shanghai Bokchoys or one big regular Bokchoy, chopped, hard and leafy parts separated
8oz of Mungbean Sprouts
8oz of Snow Pea Pods
1 oz peanuts
1 Tbsp Chinese Five Spice Powder
1 Tbsp Sichuan Peppercorns
1 Tbsp Cornstarch
10-15 Dried Sichuan Red Chiles or any other small dried red chile
1 Tbsp Sesame Oil
3 Tbsp Soy Sauce
2 Tbsp Chinese Black Rice Vinegar (Chinkiang grade preferable)
White Pepper to taste
Want to learn how to make this great dish? Click on the “Read the rest of this entry” link below for more..
First, get out your Five Spice Powder. Notice something about that ingredient list?
Yup, it’s missing the most important one — Sichuan peppercorns. This is what gives this dish its traditional and authentic flavor. You’ll want to get a good tablespoon of this out and crush it up in your mortar or spice grinder.
Add your sliced up chicken, soy chicken/tofu to a mixing bowl, and add 1Tbsp of Soy Sauce, 1Tbsp of Five Spice, 1Tbsp of crushed/ground Sichuan Peppercorns, A “drizzle” of sesame oil and a few grinds of fresh White Peppercorns to taste.
Add in 1Tbsp of cornstarch and mix up with the protein until coated and most of the moisture is all sucked up. You can omit this step if you are worried about the extra carbs, but the “Velveting” step we are doing here really gives the meat the nice Chinese Restaurant texture. Let this marinate for a good 10 to 20 minutes.
Chop up your veggies. Here are the rough and crunchy parts of the Napa Cabbage with the Baby Bokchoys. Not shown are the leafy parts of the bokchoy, the sprouts and the snow pea pods.
Open up your package of dried red chiles.
Get your bottle of black rice vinegar ready. The type I am holding above, Chinkiang, is the highest grade available. If you don’t have this stuff accessible — they sell it in Asian markets but you can also order it online — you could probably use a basic balsamic vinegar or a cider vinegar. It won’t taste exactly the same but it will be pretty good.
Mise-en place of chopped scallions, whites and greens separated, with minced garlic and ginger, and the dried red chiles.
Wok up your scallion whites, about half of the ginger and garlic. with about half of the sesame oil. Allow the chiles to get a bit browned up.
Toss in your marinating Chicken and Tofu. Wok up good at high heat for about 2 minutes.
Throw in the crunchy napa parts. Season with about half of the soy sauce and several healthy shots of the black vinegar.
Wok in the Bokchoy. To get this to cook faster, cover it for about a minute with a pot cover or another large inverted frying pan. Cook up until mostly done and reserve in a bowl.
Wok up the remaining vegetables with peanuts and more soy sauce, vinegar, ginger and garlic and the rest of the sesame oil.
Combine with reserved wokked vegetables and protein. Taste for tangyness — if it needs more black vinegar and soy, add it in, with a final drizzle of toasted sesame oil to taste.
Serve over brown rice with hot tea.