With Beijing being a ghost town, restaurants closed or operating at unusual times. Don’t let the cravings for Chinese meals stop you from satisfying that need. From our archives here is how to make the classic gongbao jiding
Outside of China, think Chinese food and one of the first dishes that probably comes to mind is kungpao (or gongbao)chicken. The sweet-salty-spicy flavor in the chicken and the crunch in the mouth from the peanuts is a winning combination. It’s a popular take-out food and sometimes comes in those adorable New York style cardboard boxes that feature in many a Hollywood movie. It is best savored with steaming hot rice.
The dish is said to have been named after Qing Dynasty official Ding Baozhen, whose official title was Gongbao, which literally means “palace guardian.” During the Cultural Revolution, the name of the dish was considered politically incorrect because of its association with an imperial officer, so it was renamed hongbao jiding (fast-fried chicken cubes) or hula jiding (chicken cubes with seared chillies). By the 1980s, the original name was restored to the dish.
This classic gongbao jiding of Szechuan cuisine involves a tongue-numbing experience, thanks to generous portions of flaming hot Szechuan peppercorms. It is not a sensation that agrees with most foreigners, so over the years variations have been made on the original recipe to make it milder and more suited for non-Chinese palates. In the United States, a ban on the import of Szechuan peppers was in effect from 1968 to 2005 because the peppers were known to carry a tree disease that could infect other crops. The ban resulted in yet a another form of the recipe that does not use the peppercorns and is now widely accepted as the American-style gong bao chicken.
When we tried to replicate this staple Chinese dish at home recently, we also chose to omit the fistfuls of Szechuan pepper that were recommended. However, we used a packet of Chinese gongbao jiding mix, and this resulted in a fiery flavor without numbing our taste buds. The gongbao jiding packet is available in any grocery store or market, local or for expats, for approximately RMB5. Picking up a ready-mix seasoning packet is a good way to introduce yourself to Chinese cooking, and eliminates the need for buying several different ingredients that you will use only very little of.
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Photos by Dana Cosio-Mercado