Kung Pao Chicken is a spicy Chinese stir-fry with chicken, vegetables, chili peppers and peanuts. You’ll see it on all your favorite Chinese restaurant menus, but it’s pretty easy to make at home if you have all the ingredients. Now, most of us living in North America won’t naturally have all these ingredients on hand, but if you shop and make this once, you’ll start to build up your collection of Asian ingredients and will be able to pull this dish (and other Chinese recipes) together in a jiffy the second time around.
Kung Pao Chicken originated in the Sichuan province of China, which is in the southwest of the country. As a result, it always includes Sichuan peppercorns. Sichuan pepper is a spice from the area that is in actuality not related to the black peppercorn at all. Nor is it related to chili peppers. It’s actually the husk of the seed of a shrub called “prickly ash”. The flavor of Sichuan peppercorns is also not like that of black peppercorns or chili peppers. It has a slightly lemony, floral flavor, but the most distinct feature of Sichuan peppercorns is that it creates a numbing sensation in and around your mouth. This sensation is, of course, temporary and is a result of certain molecules naturally occurring in the spice. It’s said that this numbing effect allows the eater to better handle hot spice from chili peppers, but I’ll leave that up to you to decide. If you don’t have (or can’t find) Sichuan peppercorns, you can try to substitute black peppercorns and some coriander seeds. You won’t be able to replicate the exact flavor or the numbing sensation, but the black pepper and coriander is a good flavor stand-in.