Posts Tagged ‘spicy


Part 2: Kung Pao Chicken, Szechuan Style

This is part 2 of my two-part series on Kung Pao Chicken. Last week, I did a radio segment with a friend of mine at WBAI and Asian Pacific Forum. We talked about the history of Chinese Fast Food, specifically Kung Pao Chicken, its origin, and its evolution as it came to the US. I also cooked last week’s Kung Pao Chicken recipe (the Americanized version) and this one (the more authentic). Here is the recipe for that dish. I hope you enjoy it. And if you missed the radio segment, you can listen to it here.

Tongue numbing fun!  Kung Pao Chicken, the right way.

Tongue numbing fun! Kung Pao Chicken, the right way.

I’m not good at moderation when it comes to seasoning. Growing up, the dishes that existed in my life were simple: a small amount of spices and a focus on just the ingredients. The major flavoring component was garlic, scallion, and or ginger. We’d add soy sauce or rice wine, but that was it. Without the addition of spice, everything was minimal, but still delicious. But, don’t get me wrong, I love spice – I love the earthy flavors that come out with the addition of a well toasted spice, the bright flavors that come out of herbs, and the layers of flavors that come with the combination of powders and grinds.

When I began to first play around with different herbs and spices, my brother – my official taste tester – was the unlucky one who had to deal with my heavy hand. Cooking with spices was such a new concept to me; When testing out a new spice, I always wanted to add enough of that particular spice in order to really understand its flavor profile. The three main culprits that I usually over seasoned with were: cinnamon, cumin, and peppercorns.

A few years ago, I made a black bean dish that had cinnamon in it as one of the components to the spice blend. When I was researching Mexican cooking styles, I learned that cinnamon was a common spice used in savory dishes. So when I was experimenting with the recipe, I asked my brother to be a test subject. He gladly accepted the offer. After my brother’s first bite, a look of uncertainty crossed his face:

“Why do these beans taste like cinnamon?”

“Good, you can taste the secret ingredient!”

“It’s all I taste, why did you put so much of it?”

“I wanted to make sure you tasted it, why? It’s not subtle?”


Ok, fine. I’m not good at moderating my use of new spices. A similar interaction happened with cumin, too. However, this time, I used way too much of it while cooking, to the point where the whole house smelled like it. Normally, I would enjoy having the aroma from various spices fill the air, but this was a little too pungent. My brother likened it to a room full of Oregon hippies jazzercising with Richard Simmons. And, I do have to admit, the house did have a special funk that only the strongest deodorant could have fixed.

Unfortunately, because of me, my brother now hates cinnamon in savory dishes and anything with cumin in it

I think I realized my problem with over spicing when Szechuan Peppercorns were finally allowed into the States. From the 1960’s to 2005, the FDA banned the import of Szechuan Peppercorns; so, when I finally got my hands on some, I was destined to pull out every flavor that I could from it. I tried to make a braised beef noodle soup dish and wanted it to have the same spiciness that I had while in Taiwan. So, why not add some of that beautifully mind (and tongue) numbing peppercorns. Now, for folks who don’t know much about this spice: the pepper has this bright citrus and earthy flavor. But, the best part is the numbing effect that happens when you eat the peppercorn. It’s a slight zing to the tongue that makes everything fun to eat. Based on the amount that you use, the zing can last anywhere from a few seconds to half a minute. Key phrasing there is “based on the amount that you use.” I, however, was super excited to have access to these beautiful things and began to throw them in by the handful. My thought process? If they aren’t spicy then I might as well put a bunch in. Oops. My brother was upset that he couldn’t taste his dish, and I couldn’t respond, because I was drooling from all the numbing.


3 c diced chicken, I used thigh meat

4 cloves garlic, sliced or grated

4 tbs soy sauce

4 tbs rice wine

2 tbs rice flour

2 tbs oil, canola or vegetable

1//4 c raw cashews

6 dried Chinese chili peppers

2 tbs Szechuan peppercorn

1//4 c scallion, minced


toss chicken with garlic, 3 tbs soy sauce, 3 tbs of the rice wine, and the rice flour and let sit for ten minutes

heat oil in a hot wok on high heat

toast cashews, chili pepper, and peppercorns in oil until fragrant, less than a minute

add chicken with marinade and stir constantly until almost cooked through, 2 minutes

pour the rest of the soy sauce and rice wine in the wok with the scallions and toss until fully cooked through, about 4 more minutes

-serves 4-


Mien Salsa – The Condiment of All Condiments

The condiment of all condiments

My roommate, although she won’t admit it, is a great cook. She understands the complexity of Southeast Asian flavors and the discovery of mixing tart, tang, sweet, and spicy. She makes curry, soups, sauces, and egg rolls with such focus and tenacity that if doesn’t taste good to her, she won’t feel it is complete and will refuse to let me try it. She also doesn’t like to waste a thing, even though she learned how to cook from her mother which translates to: cooking to feed an army of boys but for only the two of us. If there are extras and she doesn’t deem it fit to give to others, she’ll spend the next couple of days trying to eat it herself to prevent wasting the food. Yep, she’s one of my favorite home cooks out there and she can run across campus in a pair of stilettos like no other.

Now, all the credit can’t be given to her. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her mom who cooked us a fabulous Christmas meal years ago. It involved hundreds of egg rolls, chicken, vegetarian stir fry (It had ground pork. But, according to her dad, that doesn’t count as meat because it’s seasoning), some noodles, and an amazing little spicy dipping sauce. The sauce was a salsa verde of sorts but South East Asian in style. We’ve now lovingly call it Mien Salsa in our household.

I’ve talked about the history of the Lu Mien community before, but never in-depth. Originally they where a tribe of indigenous people who lived in the southern mountains of China. Once political disputes over land heightened to violence, the Lu Mien (also known as Yao People), were forced into Laotian and Thai territories. About a century later, US forces made its way into a war in Laos and convinced the tribe elders to help them fight alongside them. Once Americans pulled out of the country in 1975, the Laotian government began persecuting and exiling this small minority, eventually sending them out of their land again and forcing them to the western side of the US. [Thank you Wikipedia for making me sound smart.]

It’s interesting to see how centuries of war and displacement changes the flavors and dishes of a certain community. I sometimes imagine a fantastic and romantic story of how a family who grew up eating foods in the high landlocked mountains would eventually be forced to a land rich in spice, heat, and flavors. I would imagine the first time that a child tasted the prick of heat from their first pepper after it was tirelessly beaten by a stone mortar and pestle. Or create a memory of when a mother, after months of traveling and escaping battles and wars, gets her first pungent whiff of fermenting fish sauce and the man, who after years of fighting to protect his land, house, and loved ones, will reunite with his family to see a bucket of fried chicken, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, egg rolls, rice, and this Mien salsa. And it was because of this salsa that the father, with a tear rolling down his cheek, felt that it was all worth it and at home. I’ve been watching way to many overly dramatic family coming of age stories on Netflix. I need some help…

I would classify this sauce as more of a chimmichurri or salsa verde than what most Americans think of when they hear “salsa”. It’s full of heat, tang, aroma, and citrus. It is a crisp refreshing sauce with an earthy and full flavor from the crunch and spice of the dried chili peppers and complexity of the fish sauce. The lime juice helps bring out the citrus of the cilantro and the tartness of the fruit helps mellow out the pungent fish sauce. And the chili adds a great earthy flavor to the whole sauce. And add lots of chili pepper because my roommate says, “it should punch you in the mouth.”.

A note on the recipe: the measurements are a rough estimates and, like many of our mother’s cooking, not meant to be followed exactly. This condiment, which is great with spring rolls, grilled meats, and steamed fish, is more of a personal preference with the ingredients. I know when I make it, I tend to add some agave syrup or honey to add a bit of sweetness to it. My roommate’s version is more of a red sauce with it mostly being dried chilies and a sprinkle of bright green cilantro leaves. Any way you do it, be prepared to have your mouth punched.


1 bunch of cilantro, minced

3 whole dried chili pepper, toasted

1 lime, zest and juice

1 tbs fish sauce

1 tsp agave syrup or honey (optional)


place cilantro and chili peppers in a mortar and pestle and combine the ingredients [if you don’t have a mortar and pestle you can break up the chili peppers by hand and place in a bowl]

mix the rest of the ingredients in a bowl and adjust to taste

set aside the sauce for at least 1 hour


Spicy Sauteed Tendon with Garlic and Scallion

Spicy Tendon

I know Kung Fu.  Well, I know a few key basic moves.  Ok, I used to know Kung Fu.  It was part of a special extra curricular program that was part of my Chinese School when I was younger. Chinese school was a painful memory of my past.  While all my friends where enjoying two full days off from school, I had only one and a half days to play outside.  My Chinese school was from nine in the morning until noon. It was a short class, but it felt like a lifetime to a ten year old.  And, like my regular school, I wasn’t a very good student at all.  I would usually wake up early that Saturday around six or seven in the morning.  Run to the television and turn it on for Saturday morning cartoons, Saved By The Bell, and California Dreaming and attempt to finish a full week’s homework in between commercial breaks.  Once my parents woke up, I would then put the homework away and keep my textbook out to do last minute studying for a quiz (because I had finished my homework days in advanced) and then go to class.  During class I would listen real hard and answer in Mandarin, which is why I credit my ability to have basic conversations in Chinese but also why I lack reading and writing skills.   The redeeming factor on Saturdays was ending the day with my Kung Fu class.

Kung Fu class was fun.  I learned some fun sequences and felt like I could be the next Bruce Lee or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I didn’t get very far in my practice.  I had no idea as a kid that the art form required so much discipline and focus. But, you know what?  I got to yellow belt and I was satisfied. I just wanted the accessory.  It was something that I could show off to the world when my parents took me out for lunch and errands after school. I was a super hero. Well a beginner belt superhero.

One of the places I got to show off my “manly-ness” was at A&J restaurant.  Still one of my favorite restaurants of all time and I still get the same dishes every time I visit.  We went so often, to the point where the moment they saw a tiny Taiwanese boy running awkwardly in the parking lot with baggy Kung Fu clothes and a yellow sash, my order would already be in the kitchen.   A few minutes later, while my parent where still waiting for the rest of the order, I would have in front of me Zha Jiang Mian, pickled seaweed, and stir fried tendons.

It's not a sexy thing. But it tastes awesome.

I’ve been able to get both the seaweed and noodle dish in NYC to help curb my cravings. But, I have yet to find a place in the city to satisfy the tendon bug. The texture of this dish is hard to describe.  It’s a soft gelatinous chewy goodness, but has a subtle crispness fruity from the cooking processed.  Because the chili oil and scallion impart an intense citrus and floral fragrance, the flavor profile of the earthy garlic becomes a subtle nuttiness mixed with a hint of spice. Add the caramelizing of the soy sauce and you have a complex profile of flavors and textures in a dish that only has five simple ingredients.

The key thing with this dish is to use lots and lots of oil. You want the tendon to stir fry and not stick to the pan. Also, make sure your pan is screeching hot. Like, smoke alarm is going to go off hot. So make sure the house is well ventilated and you’re ready to deal with some chili oil smoke. There is a chance, if you don’t open a window, that you are creating some illegal bio-warfare.

Enjoy this dish.  It’s not exactly like the original, but maybe if I put on a Kung fu outfit and a yellow belt, it will almost be the same.


2 tbs vegetable oil

2 chili pods (or you can use 2 tsp chili oil)

1½ lb beef tendon (boiled until soft), cut in 1 inch pieces

3 cloves of garlic, smashed

2 scallion stalks, 1 inch slices

1 tsp soy sauce

1 tsp rice wine


heat oil on high with chili pods until almost smoking

add all ingredients and stir fry for a few minutes, until fragrant

remove from heat and add salt to taste

-serves 4-



Edamame reminds me of summers in California.  It’s only fitting that I make this in the middle of winter weather hell.  When I was younger I would get excited at the thought of enjoying the slightly salty and nutty morsels. Actually, now that I think about it, I still get excited at the thought of enjoying the bright green snack. This comes partly from the enjoyment of the final product but mostly from it being a staple that was associated with my summer days of pretending to be a ninja fighting off dragons, a wizard using the pool as a giant cauldron, or a killer whale trainer.  It reminds me of warm summers in our backyard with the family as they drink beers and relatives visiting from out of country.  Edamame reminds me of happiness.

Preparing the edamame is a quick process.  You can usually find them frozen in most markets, but in the off chance that you are one of the lucky few, they may be available fresh and still attached to their branch.  The only thing that takes time is to get the water to a boil.  I have vivid memories from my childhood watching the edamame in the pot as the water’s rolling boil tumbles the pods in a violent dance to become tender.  You can enjoy this dish both hot, room temperature, or cold.  I would rather have it cold, especially if it is a dry summer day.

Once the edamame has finished cooking, I put it in an ice cold salt water bath.  It brings the temperature down quickly without losing the color, but more importantly it allows some of the salt water to seep into the beans.  This creates an end result of pods exploding with intense flavor as you bite into the pod.  Depending on how salty you like them, you can sprinkle and toss some kosher salt on the soybeans after you drain it.  I like adding more salt because of the slighty rough texture you get from the crystals on your tongue when you bite down on the pods.

I’ve recently been introduced to dressing the edamame with a little lime juice and hot sauce of your choice.  It’s a massive tastebud/toungue overload with the tickle of the slightly fuzzy pod shells, bite of the hot sauce, and the tart punch of the lime juice.  I’ve used shiracha and sambel olek.  Both are wonderful, but it’s all up to the person eating it.


8 cups of water

2 cups of edamame, frozen

½ cup of salt, plus some for sprinkling

1 tsp hot sauce (optional)

¼ tsp lime juice (optional)


boil 4 cups water in a large pot on high

add ¼ cup of the salt to boiling water and dump edamame into pot

cook on high for 5 minutes or until the pods are cooked (there should be a slight cripness to the pod)

transfer pods to a bowl filled with ice cold salted water, using the remaining water and salt

soak edamame for 5 minutes until completely cool and drain

sprinkle salt, and if desired, hot sauce, and lime juice over edamame and toss

-serves 4-6 –


i hunger...i cook...i eat...i come back...i reminisce...i blog...enjoy.


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