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Savoring The Spice In Kung Pao Chicken

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Savoring The Spice In Kung Pao Chicken

Savoring The Spice In Kung Pao Chicken

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  • Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Finally this hour, a kitchen encounter in China.

Mr. LI JIANQING (Instructor, Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine): My name is Li Jianqing.

BLOCK: And he comes wielding very sharp instruments.

(Soundbite of knives clashing)

Whoa, careful with that cleaver, Mr. Li, and careful of the fire.

Mr. JIANQING: Chinese cuisine (unintelligible) times big fire.

BLOCK: Oh, yeah.

Mr. JIANQING: Very beautiful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Big fire.

Mr. JIANQING: Yeah. Big fire.

BLOCK: I met Li Jianqing back in April in Chengdu, China. This was before the Sichuan earthquake. I met him over a big blackened wok in a teaching kitchen at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, which later came through the earthquake just fine. Sichuan, of course, is famous for its food with its mouth-numbing spicy heat. Li Jianqing is an instructor there. He introduced me to the world of Ma, and I haven't been the same since.

Ma means numbing in Chinese, and that sensation is a distinctive characteristic of Sichuan food. It comes from the Sichuan peppercorn, in Chinese, hua jiao, meaning flower pepper. The Sichuan pepper isn't a pepper at all. It's an aromatic berry from the prickly ash tree. Those berries are dried, they turn a beautiful purplish color, and they're used with abandon in many of the dishes I ate in Sichuan. But there are other uses too.

Mr. JIANQING: So you have to try when you have tooth ache. You can take this and after, and you feeling no ache.

BLOCK: If you have a toothache, you put a Sichuan pepper in your tooth?

Mr. JIANQING: Yeah.

BLOCK: It numbs it?

Mr. JIANQING: Yeah.

BLOCK: You don't feel a thing?

Mr. JIANQING: When you tooth ache (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Li Jianqing thumbs through a mound of Sichuan peppercorns he's going to cook with.

Mr. JIANQING: I like this very much because the way you put a little and just the three grams. When you put more, it's numb.

BLOCK: It makes you numb?

Mr. JIANQING: Yes.

BLOCK: It's numbing - should I bite it?

Mr. JIANQING: But take care.

BLOCK: Take care?

Mr. JIANQING: Yes.

BLOCK: Well, I popped a peppercorn into my mouth and chomped down hard.

Okay, so I've bitten on this peppercorn and it's - my tongue is tingling.

Mr. JIANQING: Yeah, yeah.

BLOCK: But it's not hot. It's just tingly.

My mouth starts buzzing, dancing with a fizzy heat. The taste fills my mouth - fragrant, a little bit sour.

BLOCK: Okay. The tingling is now in my lips, it's moved through my tongue, to my lips.

Mr. JIANQING: Me too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JIANQING: Me too.

BLOCK: But it's a good tingling. It's not painful.

Mr. JIANQING: The high quality.

BLOCK: High quality?

Mr. JIANQING: Yeah.

BLOCK: Li Jianqing stir-fries up a wokful of Kung Pao chicken, chicken with peanuts, with lots of hot chilies and Sichuan pepper. Before I came to Chengdu, the food writer Fuchsia Dunlop had told me I had to eat Kung Pao chicken - that it would taste totally different from the dish found in lots of Chinese restaurants in the States, and she's right. Li Jianqing's Kung Pao chicken has layers of flavor I've never tasted before.

Mr. JIANQING: Very numb?

BLOCK: It's like a kick. No, just a little chili. It's great because as you eat it, you get this little burst of the sort of fragrant pepper flavor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: It's just refilters in the middle…

Mr. JIANQING: Yeah.

BLOCK: …with the chicken and the peanuts.

Mr. JIANQING: Can you do these dishes? After you…

BLOCK: I'm going to do it?

Mr. JIANQING: Yeah.

BLOCK: You want me to make it?

Mr. JIANQING: Yes. Please.

BLOCK: That's a challenge. I take that challenge.

Mr. JIANQING: Okay. No problem. Just try.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Okay. But something is missing.

I think I need a hat.

Mr. JIANQING: Hat? Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Okay. With my white chef's hat on, I mix up the sauce.

And I'm going to…

Mr. JIANQING: And we need three of this.

BLOCK: Three of the vinegar. Okay.

Mr. JIANQING: Yes. One.

BLOCK: One.

Mr. JIANQING: Two.

BLOCK: Two.

Black vinegar, soy, salt and sugar with corn starch and water.

Mr. JIANQING: I needed that big fire and put some oil, and stir-fry the chicken, okay?

BLOCK: Fry the chicken, okay.

The flame bores fiercely around the wok. I tossed in the chicken mixed with the sauce. Relax, Mr. Li tells me. Easy for him to say.

Mr. JIANQING: Stir-fry slowly.

BLOCK: Slowly. My left hand is wrapped in a towel holding one handle of the wok. It's heavy and hot and harder than it looks. I slide the chicken out of the wok, most of it anyway.

(Soundbite of stir-frying)

Mr. JIANQING: Okay.

BLOCK: I tossed in the hot chilies and Sichuan peppercorn, then ginger and garlic and scallions.

Mr. JIANQING: Stir-fry on the fire, stir-fry.

BLOCK: Back in goes the chicken, and that's it.

Mr. JIANQING: Very good.

BLOCK: Now is the moment of truth. Li Jianqing takes a bite.

Mr. JIANQING: Very good. It's better than me - than mine.

BLOCK: No.

Mr. JIANQING: Yes, yes, yes.

BLOCK: You're just so nice to a stranger, but…

And he's too polite to mention I burned the chilies.

Mm, my mouth is tingling…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: …in a good way. Thank you for my lesson. That was a treat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I don't think you get your hat back, though.

Mr. JIANQING: That's it.

BLOCK: I'm going to keep the hat.

Mr. JIANQING: No, (unintelligible).

BLOCK: That cooking adventure from my visit to the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in Chengdu, China back in April. If you want to try making authentic Kung Pao chicken yourself, you'll find a recipe at our Web site, npr.org.

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