The ‘Real’ Kung Pao Chicken — And Why I Hope I Never Find It
Ask someone outside China to name a few iconic Chinese dishes, and you’ll likely hear some familiar names. Peking duck is one, mapo tofu is probably another. But if you had to pick one Chinese dish that is known worldwide, it would be hard to argue with putting kung pao chicken, or gongbao jiding, at the top of the list.
Gongbao jiding is so well known that many of us can’t even decide what to call it. English menus outside China often use the old Wade-Giles spelling of “kung pao” — a name more befitting of a campy martial arts movie — while others use the pinyin version of gongbao.
Similar linguistic issues exist even in China, where there is agreement on the pronunciation, but not always on the characters. Menus might write “gong” with the character meaning palace or the one meaning public. “Bao” might be written with the character meaning treasure, protect, or, perhaps the most apt of all, the “bao” in baochao — to fry over high heat.
And then there’s the dish itself. The jiding part, the two characters that everyone can agree on, means “chicken cut into little cubes” — and is also pretty much where the similarities end. Beyond this very basic feature, there is little agreement about any other part of the dish. Even the special ingredient most commonly associated with this chicken dish — peanuts — is up for grabs.
The taste of the dish varies within China almost as much as it does abroad. I have had gongbao jiding at the top of Mount Tai, on a boat plying the Pearl River, and on the Hulunbuir grasslands. Each place had its own unique way of making the dish, from brilliantly spicy versions made with generous handfuls of dried chaotian chilies and numbing Sichuan peppercorns, to others that are unbearably salty or even sickly sweet.
Besides cross-cut sections of long Shandong onions, cooks might add cubes of carrot, cucumber, or lettuce stem. Sometimes the peanuts are fried with the chicken, sometimes they are just scattered on top. And that’s not even counting the new wave of frozen and canned versions.
Gongbao jiding can even be made with tomato sauce — for me, that’s one culinary bridge too far.
Even in Sichuan province, where gongbao jiding holds iconic pride of place, it is hard to point to a universal standard for the authentic dish. Whenever I try to get a definitive answer from my friends in the Chengdu restaurant scene about the correct way to make gongbao jiding, I always hear the same disappointing refrain: that everyone makes it differently.
Some cooks start the dish with a heaping spoonful of red Pixian chili bean paste — doubanjiang — others recoil at the thought. Sure, my instructors at cooking school in Chengdu do teach one particular way to make gongbao jiding (with bean paste, just a touch), but their reasoning is that this is the taste diners are expecting. These same instructors are also happy to teach students about the all-important skill of swapping out ingredients when supplies are running low.
All of this happy diversity flies in the face of recent efforts by local tourism boards to standardize the taste, smell, and look of iconic foods like Lanzhou noodles and Guangxi’s fermented luosifen snail noodles.
How about the origins of the dish itself? Would knowing about the first gongbao jiding give us a clearer idea of what the “authentic” dish is?
Like a lot of iconic foods, there is an entire mythology about how gongbao jiding was invented. The best-known story revolves around Ding Baozhen, a Qing dynasty official who traveled around China performing his official duties while his retinue of cooks picked up new tastes and techniques at each stop. The story goes that it was the triangular culinary circuit from Ding’s home in the southwest Guizhou province to his postings in Shandong and Sichuan that resulted in the iconic dish. This narrative accounts for two different characters of “bao,” which appear in Ding’s name and posthumous title respectively.
Whether this origin story is true or not — there’s no particular evidence for or against it — it still does not tell us what an authentic version of the dish tastes like or how it should be made. Even if we could pinpoint the precise moment that gongbao jiding came into being, we still wouldn’t know how that first dish was made, much less how it actually tasted.
That’s because looking for definitive origins of popular culture is already something of a trap. Nobody knows who wrote the original version of traditional folktales like Cinderella because there was no author, at least not just one. Every time someone sat down to tell the story, the details changed a little bit, adding that one variation to a long line of creative voices. What people who study these things look for are the component pieces — themes like evil stepmothers or talking animals. These pieces are constantly being arranged into new creations, which is why a lot of folktales end up sounding vaguely similar to each other.
Change Cinderella to carbonara (or any other heritage food) and you see the same thing. Flavors and techniques are always being reused and rearranged. It doesn’t really matter who invented gongbao jiding, because that first dish was just a variation of something else.
That’s if it even existed. A 1902 travel guide to Chengdu lists nearly a hundred famous local dishes, but no mention of anything resembling gongbao jiding. It’s not until the 1950s that the dish starts to show up in Chinese cookbooks, and definitely not in the form that we know it today. In a version from 1956, a whole chicken (small bones and all) is cubed and deep fried in pork fat, stir fried with garlic and dried chilies, and finally topped with peanuts and drizzled with pungent fermented tofu juice. Cookbooks from the subsequent decades are anything but consistent, with some using pork instead of chicken and others omitting the iconic peanuts entirely.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that cookbooks started to agree on the common features of the dish that many people today would recognize. But by then, new industrial food chains had also made their presence known, meaning that, for many, the most “authentic” gongbao jiding is the kind you get from a convenience store steam tray — the goopy but somehow comforting union of deboned chicken breast and industrially-produced sauces.
But does authenticity even matter? The popularity of recent inventions like Zibo barbecue or KFC’s New Orleans spice might make you think that it doesn’t. But staking a claim to a famous dish can be a goldmine, especially if that claim gets multiplied through restaurant franchises or packaged food.
What gets lost? Everything else, basically. Sichuan, Shandong, and Guizhou all make gongbao jiding differently, yet each has a reasonable claim to the dish. Even those local tastes that might not please the “purist” are still something to appreciate. But as China’s food chains grow ever smoother, we may soon face a world with only one taste for gongbao jiding.
I for one would miss the other versions. Even the one with tomato sauce.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Vincent Chow; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: IC)