Kung pao chicken is the perfect quick weeknight dinner for warming up: spicy, tangy, just a hint of sweet, and so, so addictive.
What is kung pao chicken?
Kung pao chicken is a classic Chinese stir fry dish with diced chicken, dried chilis, and peanuts. It comes from the land of fire-y spicy hot Chinese food, Sichuan. It’s also a really popular Americanized Chinese take out order. Everyone loves kung pao chicken with its tender bits of chicken and complex sauce of salty, sweet, tangy, and spicy flavors.
This particular kung pao isn’t quite the way it’s made in Sichuan. In Sichuan, they classically dry fry it with just a touch of sauce. This kung pao is a saucy riff, more in the style of takeout American Chinese kung pao. The sauce makes it perfect for eating with rice.
Does this taste like Panda Express kung pao chicken?
This isn’t an ingredient-for-ingredient copycat recipe for Panda Express but it is pretty darn close!
How to make kung pao chicken
This stir fry comes together super quick and easy after you prep all of the ingredients. If you want do this faster than takeout will arrive at your door, prep everything before you start cooking.
- First off, make some rice. Unless you’ve smart and have rice meal-prepped in your fridge. Then in that case, skip this step because you’re already winning at life.
- Cut up your chicken into bite sized pieces. Place them in a bowl with the marinade and set aside while your prep the sauce ingredients.
- Prep the ginger and garlic. Whisk up all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl or liquid measuring cup. Use a garlic press for the garlic and a ginger grater for the ginger. Both are huge time savers.
- Time to cook! It’ll take just a few minutes: cook the chicken, add the sauce, let it reduce a bit, and you’re ready to eat.
Kung pao chicken ingredients
Most of the ingredients in this kung pao chicken can be found at your usual grocery store. You need chicken thighs, soy sauce, rice vinegar, cornstarch, sugar, garlic, ginger, scallions, and peanuts (or your nut of choice). The other handful of ingredients can be found at your friendly Asian grocery store, online, or in places like Whole Foods.
The hard to find stuff
- Shaoxing wine: This is the secret ingredient that will make your Chinese food taste like restaurant style Chinese food. Shaoxing wine is a sweet, nutty, earthy Chinese rice wine. Read more about it via our ultimate guide to Shaoxing wine.
- Hoisin sauce: Hoisin is pretty much sold everywhere now, from Target to your basic grocery store. It’s a thick, sweet brown sauce that’s used in marinades and as a dipping sauce. It’s super flavorful: sweet and savory, tangy, and full of umami. Hoisin can taste different based on brand, and for us, the best brand of hoisin is Lee Kum Kee. Bonus, it comes in a squeeze bottle!
- Sambal oelek: This is not an authentic ingredient in kung pao chicken in Sichuan, but it packs a fresh chili-garlicky punch.
- Whole dried chilis: These are completely optional, but if you want your kung pao to look authentic, you’ve got to have dried chilis! They sell whole Chinese dried chilis online and in Asian grocery stores. We use dried heaven facing chilis but you can sub the chile de árbol you see in the Mexican aisle too. Most people don’t eat the dried peppers, but some do, especially if the peppers are high quality, toasty, and good.
Peanuts are the classic nut in kung pao. They key is to fry them a bit to enhance their nuttiness. I went for a peanut-free kung pao with cashews. If you like, you can sub in any nut or leave them out entirely. To fry your nuts: heat a bit of oil in a non-stick pan or wok. Stir fry, moving constantly for 2-3 minutes until they start to smell roasty and delicious. Remove from the pan and set aside. If you’re not going to fry your nuts, make sure you’re using toasted/roasted nuts.
Kung pao sauce
Kung pao sauce is a magic sauce that makes everything taste good! It’s so delicious that they sell bottles of it at the store (there’s even Panda Express kung pao sauce) but it’s really easy to make at home and store in the fridge. From there you can add it to random clean out the fridge stir fries and boom, instant kung pao.
To make kung pao sauce, mix together 1 tbsp + 1 tsp cornstarch, 1/4 cup hoisin sauce, 1/4 cup sambal oelek, 2 tbsp rice vinegar, 2 tbsp sugar, 4 cloves minced garlic, and 1 tbsp grated ginger. Cook in a non stick sauce pan over medium heat, stirring until the sauce becomes thick and glossy. Let cool completely then pour into a clean container and keep in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, tightly covered. Add to stir fries during the last step, after everything has been cooked.
Chicken breast or chicken thighs?
Chicken thighs are superior in this stir fry because they are super flavorful and have more fat content than breasts. You can use breasts too, just make sure you cook them for less time.
You can also make this with:
- sliced steak
- sliced pork shoulder
- firm tofu
Tips and tricks
- Cut your chicken into even pieces. Take the time to chop up the chicken into small even pieces. It’ll cook faster and more evenly.
- Velvet your meat. Marinating the chicken in Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, and cornstarch is called velveting. It gives the chicken flavor and the cornstarch protects the chicken from too much heat which makes it juicer when it cooks. It’s what gives stir fried meats their silky texture.
- Toast the nuts. Toasting the nuts draws out the flavors making them more nutty and crunchy.
- Use a non stick pan. I like to use a non-stick pan because cornstarch has the tendency to stick to regular pans and with a non-stick you have the option of not using as much oil. Some people think that non-stick pans are not professional, because they don’t give you the maillard reaction (or wok hei, if you’re going that deep) you’d get with a regular pan, but when you’re making stir fry, not steak, it’s not an issue. Plus, the name of the game is ease and if you have an annoyingly difficult to wash pan after dinner is done, that’s not easy. These pans are my favorite.
What to serve with kung pao chicken
Kung Pao Chicken Recipe
Highly addictive and super easy to make at home.
Kung Pao Sauce
- Marinate the chicken thighs in the soy sauce, shaoxing wine, and 1 teaspoon of cornstarch. Set aside while prepping your sauce.
- In a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, whisk together the remaining 2 teaspoons of cornstarch with 1/4 cup water, hoisin, sambal oelek, rice vinegar, sugar, garlic, and ginger.
- Heat up the oil in a large non-stick frying or sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the chicken and cook, stirring occasionally until golden and cooked through.
- Turn the heat to medium, add the peppers and the sauce and stir to coat. Cook, until the sauce starts to thicken and turn glossy.
- Add in the green onions and cashews.
- Enjoy hot!
Kung Pao Chicken Recipe
Amount Per Serving
Calories 350 Calories from Fat 147
% Daily Value*
Saturated Fat 3.6g23%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.