Story and Photo by Lindsay Sterling
When I told my new neighbor, Lily Ou, about my project, Immigrant Kitchens, she immediately said she would love teach me how to make her favorite dish from China. A couple weeks later she invited a Chinese friend and me over to cook, and I watched them make Kung Pao Chicken, a spicy stir-fry with dried chili peppers, green onions, and peanuts in a dark sauce. Theirs was by far the best Kung Pao I’ve ever tasted, and far different from what is served in Chinese-American restaurants.
You can get the recipe I wrote while watching Lily and her friend here, and you can get the special ingredients you need online or at an Asian market such as the one I went to in Portland, Maine: Hong Kong Market at the corner of Congress St. and St. John. You’ll be using Sichuan peppercorns, which smell like balsam and dried lemon and have this amazing warming quality in your mouth that is unlike any other spice. Frying the Sichuan peppercorns in the oil before you cook everything else imparts a special flavor to the dish. Lily likes to remove the peppercorns from the oil so her diners’ mouths don’t go numb, but Lily’s friend said there are people in her hometown who like this feeling and so leave the peppercorns in.
After the peppercorns, you fry a handful of dried red chili peppers in the oil. These you actually leave in, so the dish looks nice and intimidating. You want your guests to say look at all those chili peppers! Ah! (Secret: Lily tapped the spicy seeds out of the chilies before she use them so the dish wouldn’t be too hot. The actual flesh of these chilies was pretty mild, and they added great flavor and texture.) Then you add the chili paste, cubed chicken, green peppers, scallions, and peanuts, and a final thickening sauce that binds all the flavors in the pan onto each bite.
The story of how Lily came to be cooking this dish in Maine is pretty crazy. She was a 27-year-old working as a tour guide in Guilin, China, a town famous for its otherworldly mountains (Google it – they’re gorgeous). At her job she met travelers from all over the world. One of them was a young man from the United States, who asked if Lily wanted to meet after work for dinner. She said yes. After three days of knowing each other, they began a twelve-month, long-distance relationship that eventually resulted in an invitation for her to visit New York. She said yes again. They got married a month and a half later. The two have since had a family and lived in many places around the world. I’m so grateful that love can bring people worlds apart together, and spread this fabulous Kung Pao chicken in its wake.